Mark Watney from The Martian digging himself out of some Martian soil

Being trapped on Mars is sure to make you feel tense.

We’ve discussed creating tension at a big-picture level many times. However, it’s not enough to have a big-picture plan; tension must also be brought out in the narration. While the bestselling books I critique almost always have tense narration covered, manuscripts often don’t. Let’s help fix that by going over examples of how it’s done.

What Information Creates Tension

If your scenes don’t meet the requirements for tension, optimizing your narration won’t do much good. So before we dive into our makeovers, let’s go over what information you need to have on hand. Often, this can be embellished at the narration level, but you need something in the scene to start with.

When we create tension in our narration, these are the questions we’re answering for our audience.

  • What is the problem? Your protagonist needs to face a nontrivial problem. If you’ve got one, you’re ready to go. If not, you’d better think about that.
  • What bad things could happen as a result? This tells the audience why they should care whether or not the protagonist succeeds in dealing with the issue. It’s often referred to as the stakes of the conflict.
  • Why will it be tough to avoid those bad things? Tension is created by a feeling of uncertainty about avoiding consequences. That means fixing the problem can’t look like a walk in the park.
  • Why must the protagonist act soon? Problems require some level of urgency to create tension, but depending on the problem, you might not need to add anything extra for this.

Now, let’s look for the answers to these questions in an example from Andy Weir’s The Martian. Below is an excerpt from the end of chapter one.

So that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

  • What’s the problem? The protagonist is stranded on Mars.
  • What bad things could happen as a result? He’ll die.
  • Why will it be tough to avoid those bad things? He has no way to communicate with the space shuttle or Earth, and if one of the many pieces of equipment fails, it’s over.
  • Why must the protagonist act soon? He has only 31 days until his living space meets its expiration date, and at any time a piece of equipment could fail and kill him.

Next, let’s look at how some excerpts were edited to answer these questions in a more compelling way. Since popular published works don’t usually have this issue, it was tough to find good examples. However, Oren graciously gave me permission to show excerpts from earlier versions of his stories on this site for this purpose.

Before and After: The Shattered Ascension

The Shattered Ascension features an airship race into ancient ruins. While the ships racing each other were sent by nations at war, this war isn’t the problem the story addresses. Instead, tension is created by the smaller battles that break out and the danger of the race itself. The main character, Fletcher, is an airship captain who has been ordered to participate despite misgivings. Her goal is simply to get through the mission with her ship intact.

Here’s our “before” excerpt, taken from the beginning of an early draft.

Fletcher patted the rail. No ship had ever ranged this far north before; the extreme cold would have frozen their engines solid. But the Aurora had spent a month in dry dock, its engines fitted with new heat conductors to ward off the snow and ice. Now they could venture into the true unknown, to explore the heart of the Asgardian civilization’s last earthly remnants.

The above excerpt has some hints of a potential problem the ship could encounter – damage from extreme cold. We also know that the bad thing that could happen as a result is the engine freezing solid. However, the gist of the paragraph is that the ship is prepared for the cold. This makes it sound like the problem has already been fixed, and therefore it won’t create any tension. That needs to be changed, but balance is required. If it felt near certain the ship couldn’t handle the cold, no one would send it on a mission that far north.

This balancing act is a common challenge in stories, and it’s a big reason why writers often kill the tension they’ve created.

Let’s look at how this paragraph was revised.

No ship had ever ventured this far north and returned. In such extreme cold, their pipes would burst and their engines would choke with ice. Even on the insulated bridge, Fletcher felt the chill. She patted the railing. The Aurora had spent a month in dry dock while its engines were fitted with new heat conductors to ward off the snow and ice. But this was the ship’s test flight; no one knew for certain if the modifications would hold.

Instead of saying that no ship has ever gone that far north before, now the paragraph says that no ship has gone that far north and returned. This further specifies what bad things could happen – the ship will go down – and also makes this fate look harder to avoid, because other ships have failed.

While the factual details of the story have been changed with that edit, the changes are minor enough to have no other impact on the plot. This is what I meant earlier when I said story problems can be “embellished” at the narration level. In some cases, this significantly raises the tension, but it requires making minor story decisions.

In the new version, Fletcher is now feeling the chill, and the narration offers a few stronger visuals of what happens to ships that venture too far into the cold. Last, but most important, the final sentence removes the certainty that the ship’s modifications will be enough. For an urgent mission to undiscovered areas, it’s believable that a ship with untested, experimental modifications would be sent out.

Let’s jump forward to another excerpt covering the same story problem. Below, a scientist calling the shots on the mission tells Fletcher what to do.

“Continue due north, best possible speed.”

“Wait,” Fletcher said. “Doctor, no expedition has ever made a find like this.” The abandoned Asgardian spires dwarfed even the mightiest cities of Albion and Lareins, those that had not yet been devastated by the war. “What more could the Ministry ask for?” She was loath to take her ship further into uncharted air without an explanation.

This excerpt says Fletcher doesn’t want to take her ship farther north, but it doesn’t say why. To create tension, readers need to know what bad things could happen if Fletcher can’t convince the doctor to change his mind. Let’s look at the revised version.

“Continue due north, best possible speed.”

Fletcher’s eyebrows rose. If they navigated farther into uncharted air, they might encounter an ice storm or freezing winds the Aurora couldn’t withstand. She leaned in and kept her voice low. “Doctor, no expedition has ever made a find like this. What more could the Ministry ask for?”

Now readers know there are specific dangers farther north that could imperil the ship. With this change, it’s also unnecessary to tell readers that Fletcher doesn’t want to take the ship farther north because this is shown to them.

We haven’t covered urgency yet. When the problem could cause bad things to happen at any time, it isn’t usually necessary to add more urgency.

Before and After: Deathslinger

In Deathslinger, the main character, Haru, battles a necromancer. However, this fight takes some time to warm up. So the story starts with a smaller problem that allows readers to get to know Haru as it leads into the more exciting action sequences.

Below is the opening of the first draft.

Haru Rake pressed her knees together and clucked her horse faster toward town. None of her farmhands had arrived that morning, which was not like them. She needed to see if something had happened. The wind shifted, blowing snowflakes under her wide-brimmed hat. She brushed the flakes aside with one tanned hand and squinted as midmorning light reflected off snowbanks on either side of the hard-packed road.

The problem is that Haru’s farmhands are missing. However, there’s no mention of what bad things could happen if Haru fails to find them, why she might have trouble finding them, or why she needs to find them soon. Without that, there won’t be enough tension to keep readers interested while the action heats up.

In some stories, the bad thing that could happen might be that the farmhands get hurt. In that case, their personal connection with Haru would be emphasized to help readers care about them. However, this story needs to stay focused on Haru. So to better cover why Haru needs her farmhands, the opening was moved from the road to the farm. This allows more focus on the issue without making the opening into a big block of exposition.

Haru Rake paced the length of her porch as snow drifted down, covering the corral in a soft white blanket. She barely noticed the cold. Ten minutes since the clock struck nine, and her farmhands still hadn’t shown. That wasn’t like them. Any other day, they’d be out working the moment it was light enough to see, no matter how the other townsfolk harassed them for coming out to Haru’s farm. She paid them double wages for that.

The wind shifted again, carrying the cattle’s lowing from the barn. It had taken Haru all morning to do the milking by herself, and that was just the start of what her animals needed every day. Come spring, seeds needed to go into the ground, and without help she’d never get the whole acreage planted in time. She’d lose the crop for sure. She glanced through the window at her old clock. Fifteen minutes past the hour. No help for it, she’d have to seek them out in town. A town that welcomed Haru Rake like it welcomed a typhoid outbreak.

This is longer, but much more effective in creating tension. First, readers are told why it’s unlikely that her farmhands are simply a little late. This way the problem has more mystery and menace. They’re also told why Haru needs to find her farmhands. She can’t take care of the animals or plant the crops by herself. Since her animals need care every day, the problem feels pretty urgent, and a failing crop on top of that suggests that without farmhands, she’ll end up losing her farm.

What’s more, the antagonism of the town means she can’t just hire new ones. It also means she has another obstacle in fixing her current problem. She has to go into town to find her farm hands, but she won’t be welcome there. The conflict with the town becomes a source of both tension and sympathy.

Before and After: The Sword of Shannara

While I don’t see popular books with narration that neglects tension very often, that doesn’t mean I never see them. As I covered in my critique of the first chapter of The Sword of Shannara, the book’s opening doesn’t make much effort to bring out tension, and when it finally gets to moments that should be tense, it doesn’t do well. While I wrote an alternate opening paragraph for the book during my critique, I focused on tightening up the existing story content. So let’s revisit this opening and examine how the tension can be ramped up.

Because the opening goes on for a while without saying much, I’ve shared a shortened version of the second paragraph. That’s right: this is all one paragraph, and the original is significantly longer.

There was a slight chill in the evening air, and Flick clutched the collar of his open wool shirt closer to his neck. His journey ahead lay through forests and rolling flatlands […]. The sun had set, leaving only the deep blue of the heavens pinpointed by thousands of friendly stars. The huge trees shut out even these, and Flick was left alone in the silent darkness as he moved slowly along the beaten path. Because he had traveled this same route a hundred times, the young man noticed immediately the unusual stillness that seemed to have captivated the entire valley this evening. […] He shook his head uneasily. The deep silence was unsettling, particularly in view of the rumors of a frightening black-winged creature sighted in the night skies north of the valley only days earlier.

Let’s sort this out into the four questions I mentioned earlier and look at how they can be strengthened.

What is the problem?

There are rumors that a frightening creature was sighted a few days ago in the general area that Flick is traveling through.

Just with this definition you can already see issues. The narration doesn’t even say that the creature was sighted, only that there were rumors it was sighted. The sighting is a couple days old, and it’s unclear if it was even that close to Flick’s path.

Let’s revise this to: To get home, Flick has to travel through a valley in which a frightening creature was spotted the night before.

The “get home” part is true in the original as well, but it’s not expressed in the opening. We need to add that to explain why Flick is choosing to go someplace that could be dangerous.

What bad things could happen as a result?

This isn’t clear. Since the creature is frightening, we can imagine it might hurt Flick, but maybe it has no interest in that.

A little embellishment takes care of this handily. We can say people have disappeared in the areas where the creature was seen. That will tell readers that Flick could disappear too, probably being eaten.

Why will it be tough to avoid those bad things?

Because we still need Flick to go through the dangerous area, people disappearing is probably enough to make it feel like Flick might end up being eaten. But if we wanted to ramp this up, we could:

  • Describe how formidable the creature is. Maybe it can dive down, grab someone, and fly off again in the blink of an eye.
  • Offer more details on what it’s already done. Maybe it already destroyed an entire hunting party.
  • Make it seem more likely Flick will run into it. His only path leads right through the small area where everyone disappeared.

Why must the protagonist act soon?

Since Flick is heading through the dangerous area right away, the situation with the creature is already urgent. However, we could use an explanation for why getting home is urgent enough to take risks.

In a low-tech fantasy society like this, it’s realistic for people to endanger themselves a bit just to get their work done. Flick is a trader, so if he doesn’t travel, his family could starve. Still, if it feels certain he’d be eaten, he’d probably find a way to delay or go around the area in question.

Since he trades, we can say his home village needs something he traded for. Maybe there are sick people at home, and he’s carrying important medicine. The longer he waits, the sicker they’ll become. That provides a strong reason for him to take a risk with his safety.

I’ve written up a new version of the paragraph with these revised answers in mind.

Flick stopped in his tracks, listening for movement in the dark forest. A vicious black-winged creature had been spotted in this valley only the night before, not long before the trapper and her son disappeared. So far, he hadn’t heard any rustling in the tree canopy or whoosh of huge wings, only an unnatural silence. Flick shook his head uneasily and continued on. He couldn’t let his fear get the better of him, or the medicine he carried would be too late to help the sick in his village.

Now the black-winged creature feels like an immediate threat, not a distant rumor.

If you’re struggling, make sure the conflict you’ve created for your scene is strong enough. Don’t try to embellish some tense problems into a normal day in the life of your protagonist. You won’t get much tension, and your scene will feel contrived.

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