A little while ago we took our son Augie to see the movie "Ferdinand." He’s six, and I thought it would be fine. It was animated! It was about a bull that prefers flowers to fighting! We’d read the book! Augie was fine until about half-way in when he did this thing he does when he’s watching something and gets scared but also can’t stop watching. He sat backward in the seat (on his knees) and then craned his neck around to see the screen. “This is a TERRIBLE MOVIE” he said, “WE HAVE TO GO!”
The scene that proved too much? It’s the one where Ferdinand walks into a store that’s filled with cups and plates stacked high. Ferdinand sucks in his belly and tries to squeeze between all these towers of delicate dishes. That’s when Augie lost it. The tension of a bull walking into a china shop was way too much for him. We had to leave.
I think about that sometimes when we are editing the show, because it reminds me just how powerful narrative tension can be.
We do lots of kinds of stories here, but I have a soft spot for ones where the plot just propels the thing, where you keep wondering how the hell everything is going to play out.
So here’s a short list of some of my favorites. Some fun. Some sad. All filled with so much tension you might have to sit backward in your seat.
"It Seemed Like a Good Idea At The Time" (Possibly my favorite cop story that does not involve a squirrel.)
"What Doesn’t Kill You" (There are dangerous things in the water. And also out of the water.)
"Unbreaking the Bank" (This has all the classic elements of a thriller. A small community bank. Accountants. Government bureaucrats… Still, it’s totally gripping. And I love that at the end you actually learn something quite deep about our financial system.)
"You Had Me At Hello" (This story is incredible the way it lays out. You think it’s over, and then there is another twist. And another. )
"129 Cars" (In the movies a quick way to create tension is with a ticking clock counting down to armageddon of one form or another. In this case the dealership must sell 129 cars by the end of the month.)
"Abdi and the Golden Ticket" (A more serious and heartbreaking ticking clock.)
"Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde" (I remember where I was when I heard this - the exact exit on the BQE.
One of the weird things for me about working on and editing stories like this, is that you listen to them over and over, but after the first time you hear it, it can be really hard to feel how well they’re working. Because the surprises in them aren’t surprises anymore. You can’t unknow the twists. So you find yourself thinking about other questions in the stories. Not what is going to happen. But why is this happening?
In the stories on this list, that turns out to be a much more interesting question.