Plot and Motivation: How To Lose When Winning! a.k.a. Building Tension for Heroes

Wow.  Between the constant demands of being a Starving Author AND a Starving Reviewer, I’ve had so little time to just … write an article.  Well, I throw off the shackles of responsibility and, despite the fact I really should read my next book/write a review/write a chapter/edit a chapter/promote a book/do my laundry (pick your favorite three!), I am going to instead write a new chapter in Plot and Motivation!

In the past, we’ve talked about such tropes as the Invincible Hero and the Ace, archetypes that are, usually, invincible in traditional physical conflict.  Now, this is all fine, there are usually other approaches to add dramatic tension outside of the realm of action and direct combat and such.  However, what if you’re writing in the action genre OR a genre that relies on action/competition/conflict as the core plot element?  Well, again, easy answer, don’t use such overpowering archetypes or find a way to deconstruct the tropes.

AH-HA!  We’re not done yet!

What if you don’t have a choice about the character for some reason?  Or what if the constraints of the plot demand victory for the heroes?  For example, in a fantasy world, many conflicts could very well be life or death.  Defeat isn’t an option.  Or in a sports novel if there is a tournament the protagonists must win for the plot but there isn’t a losers bracket by the rules of the game?  There are situations where you can’t let the protagonists lose but you’re afraid of steering too far off the realm of believability into breaking your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Well, the first and simplest solution is to simply make every conflict a challenge.  Heroes that don’t lose don’t have to be Invincible.  If you can capture the struggle, the risk, the difficulty of every encounter, you can still harness the dramatic tension needed to entice the reader but still not throw your plot off-line with strange explanations as to why things differ This One Time.  If you set rules or a tone for your world, it is important to keep with it.  Easier to make things very hard than to provide conspicuously out-of-place reasons.

A second closely related solution is to ensure every victory has a cost.  With some scenarios, this is simple.  Anything involving direct physical struggle or potentially dangerous situations is easy: injuries and wounds don’t magically disappear and even the best fighter is not untouchable.  In any physical activity, even non-contact sports, injuries can happen and fatigue can be a crucial factor.  Having to perform at one’s peak day after day in a hard physical activity is impossible, eventually wear and tear sets in.  Frankly, any extended effort, mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual, is taxing and should be presented as so.  In team situations, with multiple protagonists, the cost may be in lost teammates or defeated allies.  Even material costs are possible with tools, money, equipment, and ammunition as all things that can go away to make each step a bit more challenging.

A third idea, last on my short list, is to break the rules.  Yes, I know I said that it is important to keep world rules in place but, even in our own hard-set reality, exceptions and unforeseen events happen and rules we consider iron-clad by Mother Nature sometimes seem to be meaningless.  If you DO feel the need to take this route, it is important to point out that fact, that what just happened defied all expectations/laws of nature/rules of magic/etc., and then try to ensure it doesn’t happen again!  Rare once-in-a-lifetime events happen.  It becomes trite when that once-in-a-lifetime event happens twice.

While this kind of situation might seem rare, in some genres it comes up more than others.  Having to struggle with it myself in my latest writings, I had to think long and hard about it so I felt it fitting to share with others out there who may wind up dealing with the same issues in their own works.

If you have any comments or input, feel free to let me know!  Until next time, good luck and good writing!

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2 comments

  1. Ageing can take its toll, too. This may not seem like a necessary issue in fantasy, but I seem to remember Gandalf making some such reference to his advanced years, and even Yoda finally got old enough to die.

    1. That’s an excellent point too. Most everyone gets old or infirm or some other physical disability or limitation can add an extra dimension of drama to otherwise seemingly invincible protagonists.

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