What the Lord of the Rings Taught Me about Crafting Tension in My Novel

In our daily lives, we’re all about doing whatever we can to decrease tension. But when it comes to the lives of our fictional characters, we have to be willing to ramp up the tension … more … and more … and yes, a little bit more.

I relearned the importance of tension while watching a favorite movie a few days ago.

The movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
The characters: The members of the Fellowship, including Frodo and his trio of Hobbit friends; Gandalf, the Gray wizard; Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor; Elf Legolis, Dwarf Gimli, Boromir, son of the steward of Gondor
The scene: The Mines of Moria leading to the passage of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm

What you need to know: The fellas in the Fellowship are running from hordes of Orcs – nasty bad guys. Tension? Yes.

But wait, there’s more – tension, that is.

• The Fellowship is running through the Mines of Moria – and of course, it’s no easy escape. They traverse a narrow set of high stairs, which is bad enough if you don’t care for heights.

• And then … their escape is halted by a broken part of the stairway. Of course it is. Increasing tension. Forget falling over the side of the narrow bridge. Now they have to jump across a gaping chasm.

• Legolis and Gandalf make it across. And then Orc arrows start flying. It’s one thing to have to jump across a crumbling bridge – it’s another thing altogether to do it while you’re dodging arrows and, if you’re Legolis or Aragorn, to think about trying to jump while you’re defending the Hobbits. Increasing Tension. Keep moving and protect others.

• Boromir jumps with two of the Hobbits, but causes the bridge to crumble even more. (And I confess it was only in this, my who-knows-how-many-times-I’ve-watched-this-scene viewing, that I noticed the side of the bridge falling apart after Boromir jumped. Increasing Tension. The leap for everyone else just got wider.

When Frodo and Aragorn are the only ones remaining on the wrong side of the bridge — which yes, has crumbled more as others jumped across to safety — a falling rock hits the bridge behind them. Now Frodo and Aragorn are precariously perched on a small portion of stone weaving back and forth in midair. Increasing tension. Can’t go forward. Can’t go back.

• Oh … and while all this is going on, the Balrog, and ancient demon of fire and shadow, is advancing on them. Sorry, forgot to mention him. Increasing tension. One more very bad guy added to the mix.

The lesson about tension is a simple one: Pile it on, people. Pile it on. Don’t cut your characters a break.

One caveat: While you’re piling on the tension, make it plausible.

Some of the tension-creating circumstances were subtle, such as the edge of the bridge crumbling when characters jumped from one side to the other. And some were as blatant as a random piece of falling scenery destroyed part of the bridge. But never once while I watched that scene did I doubt what was happening. Every action and reaction – every “Oh, no! Not that!” was realistic for that fictional world.

Select a scene in your work-in-progress (WIP). How can your ramp up tension?

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Saggy Scene Series: The ONE Easy Trick to creating Scene Tension

Build in a Fear of Failure!

I am a closet SciFi junkie, and my current love affair is Falling Skies.  I’ve been with them from the beginning and to be honest, I love the show not for the Sci-Fi, but for the characters. In short, I love the hero, and his three sons, and want them to survive.

I care about these Sympathetic Characters.

Which is why I found myself at the edge of my seat during last week’s episode. The hero, Tom Mason (played by Noah Wylie) and his oldest son, Ben, are trapped in a prison camp and need to escape. They’ve devised a wild plan to break through the electrical walls that holds everyone prisoner.

I realized the episode was fantastic when I found myself on my feet at the end of it.

Here’s the play of events – the hero has to distract the bad guys (skitters, or very large alien bugs) and get them to a building they’ve rigged to blow. In the meantime, Ben has to gather up all the prisoners and get them into the tunnels near their escape route. Finally, a third group, incidentally, a motley crew of soldiers who hate each other, has to climb over the wall with this homemade electric-repelling suit to get to the power supply and take down the electric wall.

If you are a fan and haven’t seen the episode, stop reading here. 

The plan begins perfectly – Tom kills a guard, which brings out a horde of bugs, who chase him (he’s on a motorcycle) through the city, away from the escapees.

Meanwhile, the guy with the electric suit in the motley crew is getting ready to put on the suit when – because of Tom’s escape – becomes injured as a part of collateral damage.

With time ticking down, they have to turn to the most agile, least trusted member – a guy named Pope – to put the suit on and get over the fence.

Meanwhile, Ben is trying to get everyone into the tunnels…but an elderly couple is taking up the rear, slowing everyone down.

Tom escapes into the building as planned, and the bugs run after him. The plan is for him to jump into the river as the building is blown up – but to do so, he’ll have to get over the electric fence.  He expects it to be down.  It’s not, and here come the bugs.

Meanwhile, Pope is struggling to get over the fence. He only has 90 seconds before his suit blows up and he’s killed.  He gets to the top of the fence…and drops his explosives.  Will he go back for them, or go over the fence and escape on his own (something he’s mentioned he’d like to do)?

A bug notices the elderly couple trying to escape.

Tom, to buy time, starts to shoot the bugs with his fire gun, hoping the fence goes down soon.

Let’s go back to our Scene Tension equation for a moment.  Remember, it’s a Sympathetic Character (Tom) who wants something (to escape) why (to be reunited with his family) who has a goal (distract the bugs and take down the fence) and something to lose (if they don’t escape, they’ll all be killed) who faces obstacles (unfortunate circumstances and interpersonal problems) and has a realistic fear of failure. 

It’s the playing out of the realistic fear of failure that keeps a scene from sagging.  Will they escape?  It feels, at first, as if they might – all is going well.  Then, piece by piece the plan begins to crumble.

Now, here’s the EASY TRICK.  To keep the tension moving along, the scene has to play out in a series of Yes/Nos, Yes/Nos.  (or, conversely, No/Yes!)

If they are going to succeed, then the author will continue to hint that they won’t succeed.  There’s no way he’ll succeed…or maybe yes.  But no…or, yes?  See…no! But…Yes!!  (aka, No/Yes!)

If they will fail, then the author should hint that they will succeed – and let the failure take us by surprise.  Of course he’ll succeed, until, oh no, maybe they won’t, and then yes, everything is fine, until it’s not, and then, see, triumph…except, oh no, we didn’t see that coming – FAIL. (Yes/No!)

Look at your scene before you write it and ask…Is this a Yes/No scene or a No/Yes scene? 

Let’s keep going. 

Pope has dropped the backpack full of explosives.  He shocks everyone by climbing down the fence, picking it up, and climbing back up.  SUCCESS!!  However, at the top, just as he’s about to escape, his suit breaks apart and launches him over the fence…and he falls, unconscious. Or…dead?  FAILURE!

Ben gets everyone in the tunnels…SUCCESS!  Until, a bug sees them and starts to follow, alerting the other bugs – FAILURE!

Tom has lured the bugs into the building – SUCCESS. But they’ve figured out Tom’s plan – and are starting to run from the building – FAILURE!

Pope isn’t dead and he gets the explosives and blows up the power supply – SUCCESS!  But, when the smoke clears, he sees there are still a few strands hanging, and the fence is still up.  FAILURE!

Ben goes to fight the bugs – and sets up explosives to block the bugs from attacking.  They go off and kill the bugs – SUCCESS!  But the elderly man (who was a friend) is killed in the process. FAILURE.

Tom decides to blow the building anyway – SUCCESS!  But the fence is still down – and he’s going to die. FAILURE!

Pope gets angry and takes an ax and starts to hack at the power cord.  It works, the cord is snapped and suddenly the fence goes down!  SUCCESS!

Ben and the prisoners escape – SUCCESS!

Tom blows the building and jumps into the river *JUST* as the fence goes down.  SUCCESS!

The bugs are dead and the prisoners are free, morale and trust are restored and now Tom and Ben are on their way to reunite with their family.  Stay tuned for next week’s episode!

Here’s how to put the Fear of Failure into your scene by using this simple Yes & No trick:

Step 1:  Look at the END of your scene. Will they achieve their goal, or fail?  Figure out your rhythm Is it a Yes/No scene, or a No/Yes?  (Fail or Succeed?)

Step 2:  Start your scene with the opposite position.  If they will fail, make them believe they will succeed. (YES!)  If they succeed, have them look at the odds and think…we’re gonna die (or something to the equivalent). (NO!)

Step 3:  Drop in the right hints that they *could* fail or *could* succeed.  In this episode, (which is a NO/YES) as Tom suggest the plan, he tells of a story in history where such an outlandish plan worked. (You can do the same/opposite if they are going to fail – have them think they’ll succeed, and then have someone mention an example of failure). Although it feels like they will fail, they could succeed, if all goes as planned.

Step 4:  If they will fail, then have them start with a moment of success, followed by failures, keeping on in this rhythm until the end…where they look like they have succeeded…and then you level the final failure.

Likewise, if they will succeed, have them start with a moment of failure, and follow with a small success… keeping on in this rhythm until the end…where they look like they have failed…and then give them a final success.

Yes/No? No/Yes?  Follow this easy trick and you’ll know how to build Fear of Failure into your now-not-saggy scene!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

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Saggy Scene Solutions: Use Goals versus Obstacles to create tension!

I’ve been on the phone a lot this summer, helping my clients brainstorm scenes. One of the biggest issues I see in ACT 2 is the struggle to set up a scene correctly and create reasonable tension to drive a reader through the scene.

Last week we talked about how to set up a scene. Today, we’re going to talk about how to use the combination of Goals against External and Internal Obstacles to create tension.

In Act 2, it’s essential that each scene have tension.  Many people confuse tension with obstacles.  Obstacles do not cause tension unless they stand in the way of something someone WANTS for a Very Good Reason.

My son just got back from football camp, so we have football fever around here. Which means it’s time for a football metaphor.  The push FORWARD of the offense is the WANT (motivation) and GOAL (a first down!) of the character.

The Defensive line is/are the obstacles that push BACK against the character.  You must have both to create tension.


I repeat: You MUST have a scene goal for your character in order to create tension in a scene. This is the #1 problem that I see with new authors – their characters have no scene goals, and thus, they can not create tension.  *obstacles do not create tension!  Only the combination of goal pushing against an obstacle creates tension.*

This applies to Action Scenes and ReAction Scenes.


External Obstacles: These are easy to find – they’re the Person, Place or Thing that will ll stand in the way of your character achieving this goal.  When you’re crafting those Act 2  scenes, you need to start with Story Obstacles.

Since it’s 4th of July Week, we’ll use some Patriotic Movies as examples:

In The Patriot, the external obstacle is Col. Tavington, who has it in for Martin’s militia group.  However, he is also a fantastic tool to create internal obstacles (which we’ll get to in a moment).

In Independence Day, the external obstacle is the alien force, and most specifically the force field that is created.

In Pearl Harbor, there are actually 2 movies – in Party One: the external obstacle is actually the anti-hero, Danny, who stands in the way of Rafe and Evelyn’s Happy Ever After.  The events of war are simply the backdrop. In the second half of the movie, however, the external obstacles are the challenges of bombing Japan.

In Saving Private Ryan, the external obstacle is the challenge of getting to Private Ryan, fighting the Germans as the troupe presses inland.

However, with each of these movies, there are also INTERNAL obstacles.  Internal Obstacles aren’t only the internal reasons that keep us from pushing forward, but are more specific and create something called Inner Dissonance, or the tension produced when two equally worthy choices push against each other.

In The Patriot, Benjamin Martin must choose between justice (killing the man who killed his sons) and honor (leading the militia).

In Independence Day, the heroes much choose between their families and sure death as they attack the alien mother ship.

In Pearl Harbor, the inner dissonance is embodied in choosing dashing Rafe, or dependable Danny.

In Saving Private Ryan, the choice between saving the man versus saving the one embeds the story goals and motivations.

And that is the key to creating powerful Act 2 tension – knowing the internal dissonance that embeds the story and forms the goals and motivations, and the external obstacles that both thwart the goals and causes twists and turns.

Once you understand the Story Obstacles, you can boil these down into scenes. 

For example, let’s take a look at Pearl Harbor:

Scene 1: Rafe shows up back from the dead and surprises Evelyn. She’s surprised – and kisses Rafe. But, she’s just found out that she’s pregnant with Danny’s baby. Who should she choose – her true love, or the man who “rescued” her?  Inner Dissonance.

Scene 2:  After Rafe and Danny get into a fight at a bar, they wake up in a car – to the sound of bombs.  Their job is to get to the airfield and defeat the enemy. The “war” serves as the external obstacles to achieving their goal.

When you’re crafting an Act 2 scene, first ask: What kind of obstacles will I be using?

Option One:  External Obstacles – If you’re using primarily external obstacles, then they need be stronger than the goal pushing toward them and offer significant peril (stakes) if they are defeated.  (for example, Danny and Rafe’s nearly impossible task of getting planes in the air to defeat the enemy bombing the airfield.)

Option Two:  Internal Obstacles – If you’re using primarily internal obstacles, then each choice needs to have the same value or weight – if one is easier to choose than the other, then there is no real dissonance.  We all wanted Evelyn to choose Rafe, because he was her true love, but Danny is her current lover, and the father of her child.

The truth is, however, every scene has an element of internal dissonance because it requires your character to choose his/her goal – which is driven by a value.  If you have two strong, but different values driving the story, they’ll have to grapple with these every time they have a Y in the road, or turning point in the story.

How do you fix a saggy scene?

Ask:  What is my character’s GOAL?  

Then ASK: What obstacles do I have in the scene? 

If they’re external – are they strong enough to defeat the hero?

If they’re internal – are they both compelling enough for the hero to choose either? (and, is there sufficient sympathy for the character for the reader to agree with the decision, even if they don’t like it?)

Offensive versus Defense…let them collide and you’ll solve your saggy scenes!

Go! Write something Brilliant!

Susie May


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Extreme Book Makeover: 7 Key Ingredients to Creating Powerful Scene Tension

I watched the season finale of Once Upon a Time last night (*warning! Spoilers!*) and it was one of the best episodes in the series.  Why?  The tension!  The plot was simple – the heroine, who’d finally found her happy ending with her family, accidentally fell back into time, and thwarted the epic, historical meeting of her parents. She pulled a “Back to the Future” and erased her future.

What does she want?  To return home and live happily with her family.  Her goal – make sure her parents met, somehow.  Why? Because after a horrible childhood, she’s finally found a home.  What’s at stake?  Her life – and her son’s life.

And…standing in her way is the Evil Queen (as well as the lack of magic needed to open the time portal.)

Great set up for the episode – and even better, it makes for exactly the right ingredients to talk about how to create powerful tension in a story – and especially how to keep your Act 2 tension from saggy by creating tension in every scene.

Let’s start a definition of tension. Obstacles and Activity are not Tension. Tension is derived from a sympathetic character, who wants something, for a good reason, and who has something to lose, who then creates a specific, identifiable goal, only to run up against compelling, powerful obstacles, which then creates the realistic fear of failure.

In other words, the MBT Scene Tension Equation:

Sympathetic Character + Motivation + Want + Goals + Stakes + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.  The 7 Components of powerful scene tension.

If any of these are missing, you don’t have tension. (or you have weak tension!)

[Tweet “Learn how to write powerful Scene Tension for your novel with these 7 key ingredients #mybooktherapy #amwriting”]

How do you build that tension into a scene? Here’s are the components I use to build the Scene Tension Equation:

Sympathetic Character:  This is all about having a character that is not only likable, but relatable…and that means understanding what your character WANTS at this moment.  It’s all about looking at their greatest desires and creating a relatable motivation, something we could get behind.

Let’s go back to Once Upon a Time. Emma, the heroine, was abandoned as a baby, and grew up without a family.  She is offered a home in Storybrook, and a chance at a family… but she’s afraid of losing them.  (and the fear is realized when she falls back in time, and rewrites her future).  More, she feels like she is not a part of their fairytale world because she didn’t grow up in their world. Understanding Emma’s past is key to rooting for her.  (and the creators did this by showing us a flashback scene of Emma at the group home, watching another little girl find a family. We understand her deepest desire.)

Ask: What does POV want at this moment?

To make it Scene Specific, you next need to create a GOAL. Every deep want translates into Goal, and every scene contains a component of that Goal.

So, if we were writing Emma’s story, understanding her past, we’d say – Emma wants to be a part of her family’s story and belong to the Fairytale.  To make it scene specific, we’d narrow it and say, “Emma needs to make sure her parents meet by make sure her mother steals her father’s engagement ring.”  (how they met the first time)

You must have a specific, measurable goal in order to create scene tension (even if the POV character doesn’t know it – you as the Author must know it.). Only when you have a goal can you then create the obstacles that stand against it.

Now, to strengthen this goal, add in motivation:  WHY.  And to create it specifically for the scene, Ask:  Why do they need it right now?

In Emma’s case, the goal is immediate because her father, Prince Charming, is going to marry another woman.  She must get her parents to meet before he marries the wrong woman and erases the family line.

Which brings us to STAKES.  What will happen if they DON’T meet their goal? What fear hovers over the scene?  Clearly, Emma and more importantly, her son Henry’s entire existence is at stake.   If you don’t have stakes, then no one cares – this is probably the most important part of scene tension.

Now it’s time to build the Obstacles. What will stand in the way of your character achieving this goal? Obstacles can be People, Situations, (weather, or machines, or even government), or even a person’s own emotions/values.

In Emma’s case, it’s the Evil Queen.  She is after Snow White, Emma’s mother, and in helping her mother, Emma gets captured.  Snow White tries to save her and is also captured…and murdered.  (Good thing they live in a realm of magic…but that’s all I’m sayin’).

However, the moment when Snow White is executed makes for a powerful Fear of Failure moment. 

The Fear of Failure is the trick that will keep your readers at the edge of their seats. I first heard about this at a Donald Maas retreat, and implementing it has been key to my writing.

Here’s the trick.  Look ahead to the end of your scene and ask: Will your character reach his/her goal?

If NO, then hint at victory once, maybe twice in the scene, then disappoint them at the end.

If YES, then hint at defeat, only to surprise them at the end.

I won’t tell you how the episode ends, but the ending twist is worth waiting for.

Want to keep your tension high in Act 2?  Use the 7 components of Scene Tension for EVERY SCENE.  (yes, that’s shouting). Sympathetic Character + Motivation + Want + Goals + Stakes + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!