Created By: Westrim on March 15, 2012 Last Edited By: Westrim on May 13, 2018

If vs How Tension

Does the drama come from whether the conflict is resolved or how the conflict is resolved?

Name Space:
Main
Page Type:
Trope
One of the fundamental principles of storymaking is deciding how to balance where the tension comes from; if the characters resolve a conflict, or showing how they do so. If the story leans towards showing if, there will be more secrecy in the plot leading up to the reveal of its aspects. With a focus on how, the story will allow more of the plot points to be known and focus on the process of reaching them.

This can apply to any story in any size, even movie trailers - in fact, If vs How is a primary reason for the existence of Trailers Always Spoil, since in such trailers If is disregarded to show a taste of the How of the story.

This also applies to spoilers psychologically- regardless of how a story is set up, it can become a how story if the plot is sufficiently known before hand.

Listed below are tropes that, if present, strongly indicate that the plot is one of the two types.

If Plot Tropes:

How Plot Tropes:
  • Showy Invincible Hero: Since we expect them to win, the question is HOW they will win.
  • Police Procedural: The mystery element of if the crime is solved takes a backseat to HOW it is solved.
  • Thriller: We want to see HOW the antagonist will be stopped.

Community Feedback Replies: 34
  • March 15, 2012
    Westrim
    I don't know if this should have examples, and there certainly might be more that needs to be done with the description, but this is the basic outline at least.
  • March 19, 2012
    Koveras
    I have noticed this dichotomy in Love Triangles: if a triangle is introduced early in the story, it becomes an "If" question (two, actually: "Will character A end up with character B?" and "Will A end up with C?"), while if a rival is introduced late in the story, it is usually a "How" question ("How will B save her relationship with A from C?").
  • March 19, 2012
    mdulwich
    Prequels will often tend to be "how" stories: we know the Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side in the Star Wars prequels; the tension comes from how it happens. Likewise stories based on historical events, since I doubt many people went to see Titanic wondering if the ship will be saved. There's still "if" in that we don't necessarily know what will happen to specific characters, though.
  • March 19, 2012
    JobanGrayskull
    Stories involving prophecy and time travel tend to play with this. Though those types of plot lean towards How, there's always the possibility to Screw Destiny or make a Prophetic Fallacy (among numerous other possibilities), leading to If tension as well.
  • March 19, 2012
    Folamh3
    If this gets launched, I think there should be no examples on the page of individual works. However, it might be interesting to have examples of broad genre trends indicative of this trope - for example, the basic distinction in detective fiction, the Whodunnit as against the Reverse Whodunnit.
  • March 19, 2012
    Catbert
    This page makes a very good point, but I'm curious as to if you want examples on this and how you want them structured. If you do, some sample examples should give us a better idea of what you are going for.
  • March 19, 2012
    Alvin
    This may not help, but I would say most 'heist' movies are 'if' movies because we don't even know if they'll get away with it (and sometimes they don't), but Mission Impossible type movies (and definitely series) tend to be 'how', because we just assume they will. I just realized series will probably be 'how', because if everyone gets 'caught or killed' there would be no more show, or serious recasting.
  • March 21, 2012
    Westrim
    Yes, folamh has the right idea. This is an omnipresent trope, so aside from noting the general position of different genres (and perhaps notable exceptions within those genres), examples would be endless. This might be a sliding scale, but I'm not sure. If it were though, that would help with sorting which end a genre is on.
  • April 5, 2012
    Koveras
    Bump?
  • April 5, 2012
    kjnoren
    A good example from this comes from crime stories:

    • Whodunit - the story is about working out who the criminal is
    • Police Procedural - the story is about how the crime is solved
    • Thriller - the story is about stopping the criminal
  • February 1, 2013
    Westrim
    Bumping. It's clear that examples really aren't appropriate for this, but where does such a page go?
  • February 1, 2013
    elwoz
    I think what you have here is a high-level index of Plot tropes; classify them as tropes commonly used in "if" plots, and tropes commonly used in "how" plots, and tropes that can be played either way.

    The only example that comes to mind right now is Showy Invincible Hero, where there's no question that the hero will win, so we're here for the spectacle.
  • February 2, 2013
    Westrim
    And leave out tropes that have no bearing either way. That sounds good. I've thrown Up category headings. I'll format them better later, or someone can edit them.
  • May 19, 2013
    MorganWick
    Unspoken Plan Guarantee probably has something to do with this.
  • August 20, 2014
    Westrim
    Reviving a languished project. I see no problems in the description. There is needed formatting for the categories (which I do not feel competent to do) and a general need for examples. I'd also like suggestions on where precisely to list this.
  • August 21, 2014
    kjnoren
    I think the name can be a little more general, like Sources Of Story Tension. Using "If" and "How" points to a simple binary split, but there can be other sources and variations, and lots of gradations between them.

    The classic western story is eg selcom about if the hero can beat the villains - it's usually established early on that he's more than capable of doing so. Nor is there much question how; the tension in the story is rather when he will make the moral choice to unleash his violence.
  • August 21, 2014
    DAN004
    Foregone Conclusion is more about how since the if is already known.
  • August 21, 2014
    KingZeal
    Defeating The Undefeatable is a question of HOW the supposedly invincible antagonist will be defeated.

    Cosmic Horror Story questions IF the overarching conflict can be stopped. A cosmic horror is, by definition of the trope, utterly unbeatable. The tension in this story comes from whether or not the protagonists can at least cope with the Awful Truth.
  • August 21, 2014
    Westrim
    Kj, I would say that what you suggest would be a supertrope to this, and I encourage you to make it. You're right that there are other sources of story tension that could be listed there or on separate pages. However, I believe that this dichotomy is nearly universal, even if less prominent than other sources of tension in some stories, and should be listed on it's own. I agree that there are variations, and gradations- that is why the examples should only be tropes that lean very far one way or the other.
  • August 21, 2014
    DAN004
    ^ But we have Sorting Algorithm Of Tropes for a reason.
  • August 21, 2014
    SatoshiBakura
    I think it should be called The Sliding Scale of If vs How Tension.
  • August 13, 2016
    DAN004
    Bump
  • August 14, 2016
    Nazetrime
  • August 31, 2016
    DustSnitch
    Bump.
  • February 9, 2018
    Kartoonkid95
    • Steven Universe: In "Keystone Motel", part of the conflict is that Sapphire knows that the falling-out between Garnet and Pearl will be resolved, and thus doesn't see it as that big a deal, but doesn't take into account how or when it will happen, which makes her look like a jerk.
  • February 9, 2018
    Psi001
    • Chuck Jones once stated that the latter was the appeal to Bugs Bunny; while he sparsely ever loses to incompetent foes like Elmer Fudd, the fun is seeing how he'll outsmart them.
  • February 9, 2018
    MetaFour
    • "Like You Would Really Do It" is the reaction your audience will have if you take a How tension plot and try to play it for If tension instead.
  • February 9, 2018
    Chabal2
    Most Abridged Series turn "If" to "How": the overall plot remains the same (and the resolution is likely already known to the audience), but characters are entirely different, changing they way they deal with problems.
  • February 9, 2018
    MetaFour
    Also worth noting, I think, that some stories can be a mix of both if and how. Imagine a Batman comic where the Joker sticks Bats in a Death Trap, gloats about how he's planning to kill some corrupt CEO (who was just introduced in this story arc), then hops in a zeppelin and flies away. We know the writers would never kill Batman off like this, so we wonder how he's going to escape this death trap. But there's a very real possibility that the corrupt CEO could die, so we also wonder if Batman can stop the Joker in time.
  • February 9, 2018
    MazeMaker
    Would the Unspoken Plan Guarantee really be If? It seems to me that a genre savvy audience member would know that a plan which wasn't explained beforehand is likely to succeed, and the interesting part is How the plan plays out.
  • February 9, 2018
    HeroGal2347
    I think kids' stories typically are "how" stories, given that it's unusual for the hero to die/fail (unless maybe they're intentionally going for darker and edgier) — the only question is how they will succeed and how satisfying their success will be.
  • February 10, 2018
    MetaFour
    @Mazemaker: I'd say Unspoken Plan Guarantee is an odd duck that could go either way. Don't show the characters' plan to the audience: then you know the plan's going to succeed, and the question is just how. Show the character's plan to the audience: then you know something's going to go very wrong, and the question is if the heroes can recover and make the plan work anyway.
  • February 12, 2018
    GirlofMassDeconstruction
    We Have This I Swear But if not, continue on.
  • May 13, 2018
    4tell0life4
    What If stories is about a mix of "how" and "if". If something's different, how would things turn out?
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=5h8atibq0la2tqscm2bc2dp4