Thursday, March 23, 2017

Ratchet Up the Tension By Making Your Hero’s Life Difficult

by Henry McLaughlin 
@RiverBend Sagas

Today, let’s explore the question: How can I make it worse for my hero?

Bring In a Gun
Mickey Spillane is credited with saying, “When your plot gets stuck, have someone come in with a gun.”

Why? Because the gun, no matter what the situation, makes things worse.

It doesn’t have to be a physical gun. It can be anything. Your heroine is exploring a strange house and the lights go out.

Your hero gets in his car to drive home from work and a woman screams.

A husband and wife are having a normal dinner conversation and the wife says, “I’m seeing someone else.”

All these things ratchet up the tension and throw your main character off stride. They knock him out of his comfort zone. They present him with new choices, choices that rip at his gut or his heart. Choices he doesn’t want to make. Choices that will prevent or delay him from his achieving his story goals.

Ratchet It Up
Say my story involves terrorists taking over a nuclear power plant and holding the staff hostage. How can I make things worse? Here are some examples:
  • They strap bombs to the core and set them to go off in one hour. Never underestimate the power of the ticking time bomb.
  • There is a group of school kids there on a field trip.
  • They start killing the hostages.
  • The daughter of the chief government negotiator works at the plant.
  • She’s aiding the terrorists. 

What Can Make It Worse?
Throw obstacles in your main character’s path. Literally. It’s 4:45 p.m., she’s driving on the interstate and she needs to be across town by 5:00 p.m. or she’ll lose her job. A tractor-trailer jackknifes in front of her. Every lane is blocked. She’s still miles from her exit. And her cell phone is dead. What does she do?

Raise The Stakes
In the movie, Live Free or Die Hard, Bruce Willis, as John McClane, is helping the FBI prevent a cyber attack on the United States. His job is to transport an uber-hacker to the FBI. The cyber terrorists try to stop him every way possible. But this is John McClane. In desperation, the terrorists kidnap McClane’s daughter. This raises the stakes. This makes it personal. This doesn’t stop McClane. This propels him to take greater risks, to face death, to save his child.

The key element to making it worse is the escalation must be believable. It must flow naturally, or organically, from the story, from what has happened previously. If you haven’t planted the seeds for an alien invasion early in the story, you can’t use the appearance of a flying saucer in the last act as a device to make things worse.

And your character’s reaction to the escalation must be something she would naturally do.

Study and Experiment
As you read novels and watch movies, study them. Look for places where the situation gets worse for the main character. Study how the writers did it, how they set it up.

Throw as much junk at your main character as you possibly can. If it works, keep it in the story. And then see how you can make that even worse.

To paraphrase Donald Maass: What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? Put it in the book.

What are some things you’ve done to your hero to make it worse?

Ratchet Up the Tension in Your Manuscript By Making Your Hero’s Life Difficult - @RiverBendSagas (Click to Tweet)

Make your book better by making your hero's life worse - @RiverBendSagas (Click to Tweet)

Henry’s debut novel, Journey to Riverbend, won the 2009 Operation First Novel contest. 

He serves as Associate Director of North Texas Christian Writers. 

Henry edits novels, leads critique groups, and teaches at conferences and workshops. He enjoys mentoring and coaching individual writers. 

Connect with Henry on his blogTwitter and Facebook.


  1. Thank you, Mr. McLaughlin! I'm a new author who went about her first ms totally solo. I didn't realize writing communities existed until I finished and wondered, "Now what?" My point here...looking back, I created tension in my story as I "felt" it, kind of by instinct I guess you'd say. Since then I've learned so much from the writing communities I've found. I appreciate posts like this one because you help writers see how to be "intentional" about creating tension. I think instinct is fine, but instinct + being intentional has so much more potential! I like the advice to "bring in a gun" and love the question "what can make it worse?" Thank you!

    1. Thank you, Karen. I'm blessed you found this post helpful. Praying for your continued growth and success as a writer,

  2. Funny, I just did a short blog post on this myself. My critique partner, Michelle Griep, is the best I've ever read for making her heroine/hero's life worse. In fact, she made me get tougher on my new protagonist. I have a threat hanging over my MC, but after critiquing one of Michele's chapters, I realized I have to make that threat come to fruition. And I hate to do it to her, but it's a must. And so I will get mean and do it. Donald Maass says find out what's the worst thing that could happen to your MC and then do one worse!

  3. Thanks for this. I was going to have my MC's only sibling blown up after arriving early at a catered offshore affair. This is her only sibling and changes everything about the family business and family inheritance. Now you've given me courage to go ahead and have her father get caught in a gangland shootout while after trying to clear up pending family business her brother was dealing with. This not only will ratchet up the tension of her story to that point, it will be a trigger to give her the strength to uncover the family secret no one ever suspected - plus a way to uncover a few things that will facilitate healing and help justify a life decision that will put her where I want her to be in the sequel.

    1. Sounds exciting, Jay. Keep making it worse. Not just more obstacles but tougher obstacles to overcome. Let her experience the fear of failing. Show her facing death--physical, professional or emotional/spiritual. Facing all three would be even better. Look for a way to force her to make a choice between two moral values.

  4. how 'bout she goes into semi-shock, wanders to a favorite spot in the woods - and promptly goes into labor....

    1. oh yeah, and in a thunderstorm, too

    2. And the battery on her cell phone dies.
      Isn't fun to put our characters through stuff?

  5. Great stuff! ....Oh look. A tornado. Shoot.

    But really. GREAT stuff, thank you. :)

    1. Glad you like it. Hope it helps with your writing.

  6. Great writing advice! Thank you, Henry.