A Lesson In Tension: Deliverance 

The 1972 movie Deliverance is a terrific lesson in TENSION. 
Deliverance will be on the AMC channel January 4th at 2am eastern time (and probably other times). 
This movie has some great scenes that show how to really heighten tension, it has characters who have to make “what if” decisions like in Walking Dead, and it pits characters’ strengths and weaknesses against each other and themselves. 

Simple plot: Everything goes bad

Friends (two teachers, an insurance salesman friend of theirs, and Burt Reynolds as their other friend) go on an overnight canoe trip through the mountains and alllllll kinds of awful stuff happens. 
They accidentally spot a still run by moonshiners – and the moonshiners decide to rape and kill the canoers. 


Tension: 

Burt Reynolds kills a guy with a bow and arrow. John Voit is about to get raped by two moonshiners and he sees Burt getting ready to shoot and Voit starts hyperventilating. 

What would you do?

During all this, there are debates about what the right thing to do is. Reynolds killed a man who raped one of the canoe trip guys (Ned Beatty) and was about to rape his other friend rape – and then probably kill them both. It’s justifiable homicide, right? But they’re way up in the mountains and they worry about going in front of a jury of the mountain man’s friends and relatives. A big argument ensues. They decide to hide the body. 
NOW What would you do?
The dead mountain man’s partner escapes then shoots and kills one of the canoers later in the trip – the teacher who argued for going to the local sheriff and explaining what happened. 
See what standing up for law and order gets you?
Reynolds breaks his leg so Voit has to stalk and kill the other rapist – lest the mountain man murder them all one by one – up in the mountains and hyperventilates again when he has to kill the man – again with a bow and arrow – as the man sees him and turns to shoot Voit with a rifle. 


There are quite a few scenes that really draw out tension and show it from different angles. Plus the tough decisions add to the tension. These mountain guy rapists are reeeeally gross. Bad teeth. Yuck. 


The canoers inspect their friend’s body and can’t find any bullet hole. 
Oops. 
The sheriff finds big problems in their story and asks about a local man who went missing. 
OOPS. 
You can feel their story falling apart. Talk about tension. 


You get foreshadowing and juxtaposition as early on in the film Reynolds kills a fish with a bow and arrow and later has to kill a man with it. 
Deliverance is a  free 109 minute lesson that is a great example of things we work on, like putting your characters up a tree and throwing rocks at them, and building tension, and making decisions with limited information – and nothing going easy as a result. 
Plus it’s a good story of deciding “What would you do if” which people say they like about The Walking Dead. 
What would you do?

Then what, when that doesn’t work? 

THEN what, when you were wrong???
I’ll probably watch it again just to learn more about the setting up of situations but you might see techniques to make characters more 3D (a brief conversation between Burt Reynolds and the insurance salesman about insurance helps show the different views the two men have of the world; two school teachers wanting to enjoy nature and end up fighting for their lives; the canoers fighting about what the right thing to do is when one of them kills a man). 
Tension drives stories. 
Conflict drives stories. 
Movies visually SHOW examples we can learn from. 
Watch the actors and learn to better describe emotions, suspense, fear and rage. Note how you’re feeling as you watch John Voit go against his principles and kills a man. Odds are, you are feeling how he is acting. Be sure to do stuff like that in your stories so your readers get that experience. 
What movies have YOU seen that are good examples of tension and conflict?

7 thoughts on “A Lesson In Tension: Deliverance 

  1. I agree, Deliverance is a cringingly good movie. I watched a movie called Blindness a few years ago and was impressed with the raw human survival instincts they portrayed and there happened to be quite a bit of tention. As with Deliverance, it was not for children. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

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