Danger is vital to any plot. For action to occur, something must be at stake. This is storytelling 101. But in practice, there are several common mistakes that come about when attempting to create a threat.

Let’s walk through this using an example from an older post:

Lucy is fighting the Raxgnor, and the Raxgnor is a big frigging deal, but…

  • Even though everyone keeps talking about how it devours house pets and shreds its prey with its many yellow teeth, we never actually see the monster. Lucy sneaks through its lair and for a few heart-pounding seconds we think it might show up, but the threat never materializes, and she makes it home safely. Even though the threat is treated as real by the characters, this often leaves the reader feeling cheated.
  • The Raxgnor does appear, and Lucy lops off its head with a single blow. She demonstrates that the monster wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and short circuits the action scene, thus letting out the tension.
    • But she took down the monster using her mad skillz, and she didn’t even get hurt. Doesn’t this make her look like a badass? No. It makes the monster look weak. Your hero will actually look more badass if you allow them to get roughed up a bit. This demonstrates that the fight is difficult and that they have overcome a strong opponent. It’s also a generally more rewarding experience to watch them earn their victory than to see it handed to them.
  •  Lucy battles the Raxgnor tooth and nail, narrowly defeats it, and then shrugs. “It was nothing,” she says. This is bad because it undercuts her own achievements. Readers take cues from the characters. If the heroes act like the monster was nothing to get excited about, we assume that they’re probably right. Talking down about the threat minimizes its urgency and lets out tension.

But this can be fixed. How to Write danger like a boss:

  • The danger must be tangible. Demonstrate that your character is at risk. If it is a monster, let it rear its ugly head. Allow the threat to be fully realized and don’t shy away from it.
  • Hurt your characters. Take something away from them. Make them struggle. If we see the monster hurt them in small ways, we believe that it is capable of hurting them in bigger ways. This raises the stakes because the character actually has something riding on the outcome, and because it suggests that this is the sort of story where they might actually come to harm. Moreover, allowing things to be genuinely difficult makes it much more satisfying when they do win, or more believable if they lose.
  • Let your characters act out their fear. If something is scary, one of the best ways to show us that it’s scary both before and after it has appeared is by showing the way that people react to it. Readers will use your characters to calibrate their own feelings about what is going on in the story. If the heroes are afraid, we will be afraid along with them.

What are your characters afraid of, and how do you make the danger real?

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