11 Tension Creating Tropes

There are tropes on top of tropes for all aspects of fiction, especially in the fantasy genre. Some of my favorite tropes are ones that heighten the stakes to culminate stories into one intense finale.

Tension hooks readers and keeps them invested until the very end. Once a character is established with clear goals and motivations the stakes can be raised. This is done when what stands to be gained or lost is defined and messed with. The writer goes in and manipulates the story and basically ruins the hero’s life.

Note: these tropes have SUPER technical names… and I may have made most of them up.

1. The final countdown

Whether this is a literal ticking time-bomb or an event that will happen in a certain number of days, establishing a time limit is a common way that writers add tension.

By creating a deadline (and in some cases, the deadline is, in fact, deadly) the hero is forced to muster a plan of action without the luxury of time on their side.

2. Killing off a character/ Loosing something precious

A character death can create a great deal of tension. An example often seen in fantasy is the death of a mentor character, i.e. Gandalf losing his fight with the Balrog in The Fellowship of the Ring. It poses the question: how will the hero ever succeed without the help of their mentor?

Another character death trope often used is the sacrifice of a loved one. Though destroyed by the loss of that loved one, the hero is determined now more than ever to not let that sacrifice go to waste. Avengers: Endgame: SPOILER ALERT. A great example of an impactful character sacrifice is Black Widow jumping off the cliff on Vormir in order for the gang to claim the soul stone. The team is more than ready to avenge that death.

This trope doesn’t always have to be in the form of a character death. It could be a physical object or a place that is meaningful to the hero.

3. The failure of plan A

The mythical artifact doesn’t work, the team was outsmarted, or the pathway to success is not going to be as easy as the hero thought.

The failure of the first plan is often a segment of plot structure known as the hero “fixing the problem the wrong way.” The hero fails because, though they have put in their best effort, they haven’t learned the deeper theme of the story yet.

The hero is doomed to fail until they grasp onto the thread of what the entire story is trying to teach them, but in order to learn their lesson, they have to fail. The more brutal that failure––the more fragmented the pieces––the more satisfying the final victory will be.

4. The betrayal

Et tu, Brute?

Having a character switch sides and lead the hero further into the clutches of the antagonist will surely build tension. Not only does it weaken to chances of the hero’s victory, but the betrayal can cause a mental torment to the hero.

A betrayal is particularly impactful when it hits close to home and causes a severe disadvantage to the hero.

5. A major life event

Think of this as things that would allow you to elect changes to your health insurance. Occurrences such as pregnancy, marriage, divorce, or a change in role, job, or position. This could either be a direct change to the hero or someone close enough to them that they are impacted. These life events really stir things up if the hero did not see them coming.

6. Someone else’s life is at stake

They kidnapped the president’s daughter and now this means war! Or the person the hero always swore to protect has been taken and now they must rise to action.

The threat of death can be more compelling than actually killing off a character. When the life of someone the hero cares for is at stake, you better believe that hero is going to try real hard to solve their problems and save them.

Where’s Rachel? –Batman, The Dark Knight

7. The walls are closing in

While in reality, this means that the walls are physically moving and intend to crush the hero (like the trash compactor in Star Wars) it can also be less literal. “The walls are closing in” can mean that all aspects of the hero’s world are turning against him or her and their problems have never been worse.

Or more simply, the hero is trapped in an encroaching circumstance with no feasible way out.

8. The hero loses their power

Imagine, the hero spends much of the story training and developing their strength only to have that advantage stripped away. In Disney’s Hercules, the stakes are raised the moment Herc sacrifices his strength and is forced to fight without it.

The power doesn’t have to be physical strength. It can be anything that weakens the hero once removed. Heroes should have flaws and should not be invincible, intensifying their weaknesses intensifies the tension.

9. The baddie gets badder

The villain gains more power and the already bleak odds of the hero’s victory now seem impossible.

I like to think of Jafar in Disney’s Aladdin for this trope (yeah, I know…another Disney example). Jafar steals the Genie and ultimately gains power while removing Aladdin of his. Then he takes it further and becomes a sorcerer with even greater power. Unfortunately, he takes it one step further and his trajectory of power leads to his ultimate demise when he wishes to become a genie.

10. The fate of the world depends on it

If the conflict escalates and threatens not just the hero, but everyone in the world; then failure becomes much less of an option.

In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos didn’t just threaten to eliminate half of the Avengers or even half of the world. He threatened half of everything in the universe. Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good…

11. We only have one shot

This is huge in sports stories, where the championship rests at the end of one nail-biting penalty shot. But this could be the case for many conflicts. Knowing that there is no way back and that there is no chance at a redo if all goes wrong raises the stakes up to an eleven out of ten.

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