Tag Archives: story tension

FightWrite: Keeping Tension High

Depending on how you handle your fight scenes, they can actually become pretty boring. This often happens when the scene is just about the fight and not about the events surrounding it in the narrative. Many sequences put too high a premium on the hero’s survival, this can happen even if the hero has carved through a few hundred enemies to get there and taken no outward scratches along the way. This is a danger to heroes, villains, and even side characters that are exceptionally good at combat. When we know the hero is capable, there’s little reason to pay attention to their fights. The tension ebbs, the reader knows they’ll win and, with no possibility of the unexpected, may not even care what happens next.


This is where things can get a bit tricky. Always remember: fight scenes like any scene must serve the tension in the overarching story. The rest of the suggestions are below the cut.

(We’re still recovering from being sick, but hopefully this will help some of you. We’ll try to get the inbox questions soon.)


Some Basic Suggestions:

Your character’s goal does not mesh with handling the fight the way they’re good at. Your character could let their emotions or the pressures of the surrounding story to sway them into taking an action that may make them feel good but which they will inevitably regret. Even the most talented characters can be coerced, pushed, or stressed by forces outside their control. For example:

The first short story in Andrzej Sapowski’s The Last Wish, involves Geralt, the Witcher being hired to hunt down a Princess who has been transformed into a Striga. We know that Geralt is a skilled warrior, but the Striga is dangerous. She has already killed one Witcher and we’re shown that Geralt would prefer to simply kill her. He’s a talented warrior and killing monsters is his job. However, he is informed that if she dies, even if killed in self-defense, not only will he not be paid but the King will have him killed. He has to fight the Striga until sun up so she will transform back into an innocent fourteen year old girl. However, there is a chance it won’t work. If it doesn’t he’ll have to kill the girl and he still won’t get paid. We give the character personal motivation and the set up hammers home not only that the King has every intention of going through with killing our protagonist, but he has the means to do it.

This is an excellent way to create tension in the story because we really don’t know what’s going to happen. The set up for the sequence informs us that the monster is incredibly dangerous, circumstances leave the hero unable to kill it, and there’s a chance even with the effort spent that it won’t work anyway. This level of uncertainty is helpful for establishing forces outside the character’s control and leaves the reader wondering what’s going to happen.

Another good way to keep tension in your story high is to allow your fights to have unintended consequences. A character who not only always wins, but whose plans and actions turn out exactly as they expected is pretty boring. If there’s no sense of risk, no realization that your protagonist could make their life worse or more difficult by winning as easily as they can by losing, then there’s no real worry over what will happen. The unexpected forces characters to adapt, leaves opportunities for new reactions, for the story unfold over a few new bumps.

Here’s a good example of what I mean, taken from Babylon 5’s “Ceremonies of Light and Dark”, watch the two minutes (or the whole thing.)In

In this episode, the Mimbari spiritual leader Delenn is kidnapped and held hostage by anti-alien extremists intent on holding her hostage and eventually killing her in order to leave Babylon 5 defenseless to invading Earth forces. While the main characters search for a means to find her, the Ranger Marcus delves into the underworld to find someone who knows something. Marcus has lost many important people in his life and he is desperate not to lose another, this leads him to taking rash action. While the sequence where he beats up all the underworld thugs is rather hilarious, it also means he’s lost crucial time thus heightening the tension for Delenn when intercut with the rest of the episode.

Marcus is a very skilled and capable warrior, though he eventually gets his information, his desperate rashness ends up initially impeding his investigation instead of helping it along. This is one of the great ways to kick the Trope “Just That Damn Good” right in the teeth and it works for humanizing even the most overpowered protagonists.

Some Overused Tension Beats:

Death. A lot of novels focus on the chance of death as an all important source of tension. The thing about death is it’s inevitable, so the chance for it will always be there. However, if your character hasn’t faced any chance of death up until their climactic battle with their final villain then the chance of them dying is going to ring a little hollow. Either establish they could die early in the novel to anything at any time or leave this one in the toolbox. In fiction, death isn’t scary on it’s own. You have to put in the effort to make a real threat.

There are worse things than death. Muahahaha, no really the whole vague “bad things will happen if you’re captured” does get a little old if there is literally no chance for that and it’s not set up. The threat needs to be real and overusing without supporting them will always fail. If you don’t have the stomach to show the torture, rape, what have you, actually happening to other unfortunates then it’s not going to work. Threats only work if the author is willing to let the villain follow up on them and they need to establish for the reader that they’re willing. Be specific, let us know what the protagonists are in for if things go screwy. A Song of Ice and Fire, love it or hate it, is a great example of an author going; “I WILL DESTROY EVERYTHING YOU LOVE!”

Be willing to establish that bad shit is happening and it could happen to the characters we’ve grown fond of. (You do not have to randomly kill characters to get the message across, by the way. Please don’t.)

Everyone is dead. Finally, if you kill too many characters then the tension of who is going to die next will wear itself thin. This is why death is a bad source of tension, if you wear your audience out on it then they will eventually just stop giving a crap about them. “They’re going to die anyway right? Why should I care?” becomes the mantra.

We will blow up the planet. Rocks Fall. Everyone dies. The end of the world is such a cheap source of tension at this point you’re just better off subverting it. Are you going to blow up the world? It’s obvious the hero is going to win, right? No? BOOM. Oh, no, they won? How… unexpected.

Surprise twists are an easy trap. Never rely on shock value to keep tension high, use multiple different sources of tension from character relationships, the time value, a character’s ability to screw themselves over, all in conjunction with the possibility of death (or not) to keep readers invested. Never assume the same trick will work multiple times, in fact, generally believe the opposite. If you find yourself falling into a pattern, switch up your pattern. Shock value only works once; the same is true of surprise. You want the reader notice new things when they reread, if you rely only on surprise and shock then there’s nothing to keep them coming back.

All the best written fights I can remember are between somewhat unequal combatants. I’ve got a scene coming up wherein I want to really emphasize how equal in power the two fighters are, but the only places I’ve seen good fights like that are visual media. Do you have any references or advice that can help me out?

Well, the biggest challenge that you’re going to face with that is developing enough tension between the two characters to make the reader worry/pick sides/care. The entire reason behind why fights between two characters are imbalanced is that it’s an easy way to generate tension, even if it’s just one character thinking that they are less capable than their opponent.

Between two characters who know that they are on equal footing in terms of skill (as opposed to the author knowing that they are on equal footing, but they don’t) is that they may each prepare for the fight differently. If the characters both just say “well, we’re on equal footing so I’ve got a 50/50 chance” and then do nothing about it, well, that’s sort of meh, isn’t it? As opposed to characters who say “well, we’re on equal footing, my shot at victory is 50/50, let’s see what we can do to improve those odds” and strategize, even though they might not have to. These characters become active and are active participants in the approaching battle.

Here are some easy techniques you can do:

Instead of focusing on how equal the two characters are, focus on their combat strengths and weaknesses instead and how they match up against each other. This will give the reader the impression that while Protagonist X is a really solid fighter, Antagonist B can still get him/her/it through either a character flaw or a stylistic one.

If the two characters use different styles for combat, focus on how those styles match up against one another. Protagonist X is really good at Muay Thai, and can definitely win if they can keep their opponent at range and stay on their feet, but could be screwed if Antagonist B, who is great at Sambo, takes him/her/it to the ground.

By playing up their strengths and weaknesses, you build natural tension by providing a real, solid chance for failure. The chance for failure is important, because it’s part of how we get the reader invested in the story, so that they’ll keep reading to see how it all turns out (or if your protagonist is annoying, keep reading on the hope that there will be some vindication via pummeling).

Always note the character flaws. For example: going into an even match, a self-destructive character’s greatest enemy is themselves.

Keep track of the stakes. With the potential for failure comes the potential cost of failure, high risk is high reward. Keep the audience informed on what the consequences are or what the character believes the consequences will be if they lose. Also, know what the cost will be for winning. We always give something up for victory, know what that will be. Even the friendliest, evenly matched bout can be nerve-wracking if there’s something else at play underneath the surface. Whether it’s something as small as relating to the character’s self-esteem, or something as big as the worry that the compulsive gambler’s compulsive gambling habit will leave the party stranded on a desert island without transportation, the stakes are what make the game. Remember, there’s always something to lose, even for characters who believe that they have nothing else of value.

The fight should have meaning. Every sequence, event, character, and written line in a story must earn it’s place there. So, you have to make it count, have it show something about your characters or be a stepping stone to something greater. The fight needs to fit within the story’s themes along with the events leading up to it and the actions the characters take afterwards. So, sit down and figure out why the fight needs to be there. What is going on. What it will mean to the characters and their development. Focus on how it will change not only them, but the secondary characters who surround them. How do those characters react to the combatants actions? Do some approve? Are some horrified? How do they feel? How does it affect them?

Tension is key to making any fight work, the part where it leads somewhere is how you keep the reader engaged. Focus on what the combatants are good at, what they’re bad at, and what they’re doing to make up the difference. Active characters are important.

Try these ideas out, hopefully they will help.


Some Thoughts on Tension

 Hi there! Your blog is a plethora of helpful information, so thank you. I have a request–do you have any tips on writing tension? I think tension is 100% crucial to every story, but it’s hard to perfect and easy to under- or overdo. Thank you!


Thanks so much!

My advice for tension is that you always need to have your characters in some kind of real peril. There needs to be a possibility for them that they won’t win or else the tension in the scene and even for the overarching plot of the story will fall flat.

I always tell my characters both hero and antagonist that it’s an open race, whoever works the hardest will win. While I do plan my endings, I tend to get better results out of my villains if I give them the possibility of winning. I also get more worry and fear out of my heroes because they don’t know what’s going to happen next if they haven’t figured it out for themselves. One of the major tension killers in stories that I’ve seen is when a character is cheating through the author or the character isn’t facing resistance from other characters in the story and everything is going their way. A great way to build tension is to tell them ‘no’, slam doors in their face, and don’t have everything negative that happens to them somehow tie back to the villain.

For tension in fights, start building the tension before the actual combat occurs. You can build it in the way you describe the scene, what they notice about their opponent, what they know or don’t know about their opponent going in, letting the reader know that things can go screwy and actually having things go screwy in the scene itself. If they’re doing something stupid or getting into a fight because they’re angry, upset, or acting out, punish them for it. The other characters can get there too late, even if they don’t die, they can be injured. If they’re the best fighter in the group, how will the story change if they’re going into the ending on a broken arm or a broken leg? Who will be there to pick up the slack?

For example:

In The Hunger Games, how would the story have changed if Glimmer had broken Katniss’s bow and her arrows? How would it have changed if she’d broken it in front of Katniss, like when the Careers had Katniss caught up a tree and were planning to kill her? Katniss may have gotten out of the situation, but she would have lost what the novel sets up to be her greatest chance of survival and in a way, it would have been her fault as much as Glimmer’s because she abandoned the bow for safety when the Hunger Games started. Her opponents know that she’s the designated favorite to win because of that bow, again, her chances hinge on it. So, why not destroy it or get rid of it in some way?

One great way to build tension is to show your character’s greatest strength (if they’re super good at anything) and then take that away from them. The skills they’ve built their whole lives and taken pride in are no longer useful, helpful, or they’ve been cut off from the resources that allow them to make use of those skills. Suddenly, the favorite becomes the underdog and even the jaded reader is given a reason to worry.

The more real you make your story’s world, the better the tension you can create will be.

1) Always have some sort of active villain or antagonist in the story (it doesn’t have to be a person) with supporting circumstances that’s working against your character.

2) Make sure you give your character weaknesses and flaws that are useful to furthering the plot. Force the character to somehow be put into situations where they’re forced to deal with those fears and flaws. This will create great tension. Remember, a character can fail themselves.

Example: In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, we’re introduced early to Indy’s fear of snakes. We know he’s afraid of snakes, so when he’s trying to recover a clue for the Ark and he’s faced with a whole lot of snakes, we the audience worry whether or not he can overcome that and thus we have another source of tension in the story outside of the physical antagonists to worry about.

3) Never be afraid to ratchet up the tension and run your characters ragged if that’s the kind of story you end up telling. Just remember that a story where the tension is constantly high can become boring if the character’s don’t have some kind of stress valve, the valve doesn’t have to be pleasant like most kinds of humor. There’s nothing wrong with ripping your characters apart, so long as the themes, the events, and the plot somehow support that. If it’s not, then a stress valve might be needed. A time for everyone to stop and breathe between the different bouts of action, for the tension to be released, and give the reader a chance to relax.

Think of tension like a roller coaster, you wind up, the brief gasp as you see the plunge before the bottom drops out and then the car races downward. The best rides always leave a few loops where the car has to slow down, the riders pause, laugh, and wind up again on another go before the ride completes.

I hope this has been helpful. I think that’s the best I’ve got at the moment.