Every story needs dramatic tension — a sense of mystery — to create What Happens Next. This is what makes the reader want to turn the page. Understanding the difference between inner dramatic tension, which is character-driven, and outer dramatic tension, which is plot-driven, will help you immensely in deepening the plot of your scene.
The outer dramatic tension in this scene is Marie Antoinette being led to the guillotine. There is a lot of inner tension in what she is seeing and feeling in the moment. There is a lot of outer tension from the crowd that is pushing to get closer to this woman they hate.
Other characters, such as the soldiers, hold potential dramatic tension. What if one of the soldiers is loyal to Marie Antoinette and part of a plot to free her? How is that carried out? How and why does it fail?
The peasant woman with her hands joyously thrown up in the air stands out. What does this moment mean to her? What suffering in her life led her to take part in the Revolution? Does she have a personal resentment of Marie Antoinette? Did the Queen do something that was personally painful to her? Perhaps the Queen's carriage ran over one of her children and she callously drove on? Or her husband was unjustly sent to prison?
These three pictures below are excellent examples of the difference between inner and outer dramatic tension.
The Food Line: This can be from the Great Depression, or perhaps from a camp of children transported out of war-time London to protect them from the bombing. Or maybe this evokes hungry children in another time and place. To get into inner dramatic tension, you have to know from whose point of view you'll be writing. Understanding the character's perspective is what will lead to compelling inner dramatic tension. Is she one of the woman servers? Has she just lost a child herself? If so, from what? Why is she working here with the children? Or are you using the point of view of one of the children? Which one? What is that child’s history? What is he feeling? Happy to be eating? Sad and lonely? So many possibilities. Or you might be writing the story from the point of view of someone who isn’t even in the picture.
The Sinking Of Titanic: Outer dramatic tension comes from the sinking of the ship. By choosing a point of view character within this inherently dramatic scene, we now have a clear path into creating compelling inner-dramatic tension. Are you writing from the point of view of a man who chose not to enter a lifeboat? What are his last thoughts? What if your character is a woman in steerage who has been trapped inside? What if she has three children with her? As the boat sinks and the water comes rushing in, what actions does she take to save her children?
Soldiers During WWII: What if these two soldiers have been separated from their platoon? How did they get separated? Are they on a mission? Have they been seen by the enemy? These are just a few outer dramatic tension possibilities. The inner tension includes ideas such as: What if they are AWOL, which means they have left their post, but without intent to desert? What if they are the only two soldiers left after an ambush, and one of them is feeling confident and watchful while the other is terrified? Whom would you choose to be your point of view character? The confident soldier or the terrified one? Each choice will lead you down a different path regarding the dramatic tension of the scene.
There are so many options when you see inner dramatic tension to be as powerful as outer dramatic tension! In some cases, the outer tension -- plot oriented -- is filled with great energy and that’s what you go for. But other times it is the inner tension -- character oriented -- that meets the demands of the scene.