On creating tense scenes, combat and otherwise

I've been told by several people now that my tense scenes aren't very... tense. I'm trying to figure out why, and what I can do about it.

Thing is, I don't want to orchestrate combat for maximum amount of special effects and duels that last for several minutes. I'm not a big fan of fiction that tries to create artificial balance for the sake of having combat last longer. I skim over combat pretty much anywhere because I know exactly the author isn't going to kill those characters off. It's just a matter of scrolling down to 'how did they win this time? Okay, that was clever. Next chapter.'

What really has me on the edge of my seat is... characters. My favorite scene in all of Worm - one I still think about sometimes a year later - was one involving Taylor and her dad. Maybe my characters are boring, and that's why readers don't care about tense scenes they're involved in?

I'm trying to avoid predictability and artificial balance. As a result, I have a bad guy who uses every unfair advantage at his disposal (for instance, staying underground) to fight dirty and either end combat in his favor within a few seconds, or get the hell out. I have characters who could one-shot most anyone, but only do so in select situations with strong reasons. I can think of many situations where characters might want to hide rather than fight, because that's what makes the most sense. Those characters don't care about the reader wanting to read a suspenseful scene, they just want to survive.

My idea of suspense is that anyone can die, even POV characters, and in possibly unexpected situations. But can I get this across to the reader without killing a POV character so early? I wonder if the lack of tension is because they expect me to keep characters alive, and don't expect the battlefield diplomacy to end with a headshot.

On that note: My first real hero team vs villain team conflict was mostly battlefield diplomacy, because that just made the most sense with the characters and background knowledge involved.

I'd appreciate some advice! And maybe some examples of scenes in fiction you found really suspenseful.

Edit to add: Here's an example of a chapter that moved ME to tears (the second part of it). Writing wise, it's not my best chapter, but seeing as it's a villain origin interlude it should be fairly easy to understand without having read the whole story. Did I only move my own emotions with this one? What do you think? Suspense yes or no?


Yeah, intense battle scenes in writing are a little bit difficult. The only way that I could see making them worthwhile is if literally any character is able to die.

There are two ways you could make this work. The first way, although it may not work as well, is if every character has relevance later on in the story: put them into like a coma or something early on and leave them there until they are needed again. Then the character technically lost the battle, but they can still come back later. A variation of this, while a little soap opera-ish, is to make it look like a main character is dead, but then later, when you need them, switch to their point of view in a hospital or something as they're waking up from some coma type affliction.

The second way, which works better but must be used carefully to avoid inconsistencies in the plot, is to actually kill the characters if you think they would die in that situation, and then put any other major plot points on another character. You don't have to kill all the characters, because that would be just as predictable as always having them live, but kill them sometimes to keep it interesting.

And one other point of interest: variation in bad guys. I haven't had a chance to check out your story yet, but a good way to make sure that fight scenes are interesting/tense is to make all of the main characters' enemies fight differently, and sometimes even have them go into a fight without any information on what that particular baddy is going to do. Not only can this even some playing fields if your characters are stronger than the bad guy, it can tip the scales in the bad guy's direction. Maybe make the characters know something about the bad guy but not believe it, so that when they go to battle them they're thrown off by the fact that something they've heard is actually true.

My idea of suspense is that anyone can die, even POV characters, and in possibly unexpected situations.

I think your idea of suspense is flawed.

Tension doesn't have to come from character living or dying. Tension just comes from whatever it is actually "at stake." You can have REALLY bad things happen where none of your characters die or even get physically hurt. Perhaps, instead, their home will be destroyed. Perhaps their reputation will be ruined if they lose. Perhaps people are depending on them win. Because it's not just the character's survival that build tension; it's what they're trying to protect and why. Get your readers invested in THOSE things, too, not just in the characters themselves.

But yes, brutally killing characters off can be very effective, too.

I feel I should mention, however, that no fictional story is ever truly "anyone can die." Nor should it be. It's one thing to kill off a beloved character. It's another thing to kill off ALL beloved characters. Your story NEEDS characters that people actually like reading about. Until you get to the ending, of course. Then all bets are off.

Tension comes from unresolved choice. As you said yourself, in combat you don't see them having choices, they are reacting as things happen. In the particular chapter you posted, he has choices, none good. he's trying to avoid shooting his mom, psyching himself up to end another human being, calling them animals. things are happening that quickly take his choices away, and then he acts. THAT was a fucking tense scene, THAT was suspense. Even if they have no choice, it takes the character a while to REALIZE that, they have to think through their lack of choice. Show that, like you did in that scene. let them agonize over their powerlessness, let the bolt or projecticle go, and they watch its flight, praying they don't miss.

On some of the earlier fight/destruction scenes. You're generally writing from a viewpoint, and giving us what the character sees and senses. So there is going to be a lot of missing info. Its part of the style, and because of that, is not going to be as suspensful as a true third person where we KNOW that the dude with the gun is coming around THAT corner, and the woman with the sword is crouched in THAT doorway, and they are about to meet ANY SECOND. If people have an issue with that... well... every story is not for everyone. I for one have found more suspense in your character interactions then the fight scenes, the fights seem more a way to show everyones character and to set up situations. I for one like that kind story. some dont.

You're right, George... my wording was probably a bit off. I used the example of a scene where no one died as a very suspenseful something to still be remembered after a year. I'll go dig it up to try and see what made it so suspenseful to me.

Alexander, do you think POV switches can be used to increase suspense? Like... the end of the fifth arc, where the reader learns something is going to happen. Then, a time rollback to a different POV just a bit before 'big thing' the readers already know about happens. Would you mind letting me know if that worked for you after a few more chapters? It's a bit of an experiment.

Rollbacks are kind of tricky. They work for some people, don't work for others. I don't mind them in the abstract, but I've seen so many TV shows that do the "hey it's a tense situation looks like he's going to die" then "TWELVE HOURS EARLIER" that I'm already suffering from fatigue any time I see something similar in play.

(That said, I've used it before. So it's not like I'm blameless or anything).

POV switches can work really well, depending on how you set it up. For example, two really competent people stalking each other, each seeming to have the upper hand when you focus on their perspective... that could work pretty well.

As far as combat goes, I'm not great at it and the biggest problem I have is that when I first write a scene it plays out like a pen and paper roleplaying game ("OK, roll initiative. You go first. What are your actions?") The first time this was pointed out to me was from a very early reader of Pay Me, Bug! (before I serialized it) and ever since then I've had to write combat in multiple passes:

1. First a general narrative of what happens (how it starts, what generally happens in the middle, how it ends).

2. Then I try coming up with the "story" of the fight. Most of my fight sequences these days are in Curveball, so for that I'm thinking "what powers are going to come into play here? How will they be used? How will they change what happens in the fight?".

3. Then I start adding detail. I want it to feel fast, but also make it as visceral as I can manage, so I try to stick to action and description relating to the action and I try to stay away from thought monologues and speeches while the fighting takes place (I don't always succeed at this).

4. Then, if I'm really doing well, I start mixing the details around, because the fight should feel like everyone is trying to move at the same time. So if one character is going hit-hit-hit-hit then another character goes react, I try to rework it so it's closer to hit-react-hit-hit-react-hitreact to show that the recipient isn't just passively taking it.

Note that those are my general principles that I strive toward. I don't think I'm there yet. And if the fighting is told from a close POV, some of that detail will be lost unless the character has an amazing ability to soak in great levels of detail on the battlefield.

I am actually catching up on anathema today! havent had a chance to read since radiant and the shadowsoulstealer dude.

Shit CDub, you actually storyboard your fights, basically. Well, it shows. The only fight scene i've ever written, from Reflections, I did the same, and was very happy with it. Pantsing the fight gets confusing. To add to what he said, YOU want to know every detail of how the fight went. Your character wont know, and therefore the reader wont need to know, just give enough hints to avoid something coming out of nowhere.

I don't actually storyboard it--not formally. I do that stuff in the manuscript. It's basically writing a few paragraphs, then inserting more text, then overwriting some text, then moving around some text. Though because the whole conceit of Curveball (specifically) is that "it's a comic book without pictures" I do occasionally visualize the fight going through specific panels. But I don't actually put it on a board or anything like that... I'm still mostly a pantser.

Alexander, you comment-asked about a feed awhile back... do you still need the link for it?

actually, yes, if set one up. I'm using a website that will auto turn any website into an rss feed when it changes, tied to the TOC page, but its... clunky and unpredictable.

Alexander - https://anathemaserial.wordpress.com/feed/ Didn't set it up. Wordpress creates feeds automagically.

ubersoft, I'm going to try your method of simultaneous combat drafting for the next fight scene. I don't think I've been paying enough attention to that particular aspect. Thanks for the suggestion!

I think, more than any particular trick of perspective, it's a sense of consequence that matters. George just caught his wife, Jane, with his boss. Is his job safe? Is his marriage? What about the kids? Maybe marriages in the future routinely accept that sort of thing but, if the reader doesn't know that last detail...

On the fake/mistaken death thing: be careful. It's been done well a few times but it's been done poorly far more often. Maybe even worse, it means your readers are less likely to react if someone actually does die. Who really bought it the last time Superman "died" ? Or the Human Torch, for that matter. Oh, but if you do go the fake death route, don't reveal the lazarus during your epilogue. Butcher pulled that in his Alera stuff and it's just about the only scene he's ever written that I didn't like.