How to Create Story Tension in 6 Life-threatening Steps

I’m prone to using nature metaphors to explain marketing principles, but this past week I had a Real Life experience that not only gave me an idea for a new metaphor, it very nearly gave me my first anxiety attack and, I’m pretty sure, took a few years off my life.

My beau and I were vacationing in Acadia National Park. It was my first visit and I fell hard for the place. The coastline is full of rugged nooks and crannies, the skies are full of osprey, and the mountains are full of granite staircases that weave a solid yet mysterious path through pine-scented forests, between enormous boulders, and up otherwise impassable cliffs.

We began our day’s hike on the Black and Orange trail (so named after the school colors of its builder, a Princeton man who spent the last three years of his life constructing this massive stone stair and amphitheatre in honor of his wife who was lost on the Titanic on her way over from Europe). The day was gray and the weather forecast called for rain to arrive around lunchtime, but after we’d completed the short hike up to the amphitheatre, we couldn’t bring ourselves to turn back. The trails through the mountains of Acadia are so alluring. You never know what gorgeous vista or impressive example of granite engineering may lie around the next bend.

So, we continued to follow the trail that coiled around the side of Mount Champlain like a stony serpent. It was more than just the beauty of the scenery that drew us on. From what we could tell, the path we were on led to the Precipice Trail – the most challenging hike in the park. We didn’t know much about it, but were curious. The wind began to kick up a little and, despite the stairs, the trail became quite challenging, requiring some more careful maneuvering. Gray clouds obscured the far horizon and a mist began rolling in across the water, enveloping Mount Desert Isle in a shroud of gray and white. Still, we pushed on.

After about forty minutes of hiking, we crossed paths with a family of five who were coming back down the trail. The parents and three tween kids – two boys and a girl – were hustling back down the mountain in hopes of avoiding the rain. Our suspicions about the destination of our trail were confirmed as they told us they’d just come down the Precipice Trail. My beau glanced at his watch and then up at the skies, but, encouraged that the three young kids had survived the hike, we pressed on.

Here is the sign we found at the foot of the Precipice Trail.

We stood for a few minutes watching other hikers haul themselves up over a six-foot wall of stone to set foot on the trail proper. In the end, we followed them. We ignored the bad weather that loomed just off the coast, justifying our decision with we’re-here-we-may-as-well-give-it-ago “logic.” We had no idea what we were in for.

The Precipice Trail is closed for much of the year because it’s a favorite nesting spot for Peregrine Falcons. They like the seclusion offered by sheer cliffs. The path to the top of the mountain is only passable to non-technical climbers like us because some well-meaning (though possibly unbalanced) folks thought it would be a good idea to install iron-rung ladders and hold-bars into the side of the cliffs, thus allowing inexperienced, recreational hikers the chance to scale the side of a mountain without the benefit of safety gear. The stone face rises at an almost completely vertical angle, shooting some 800 feet up above the base of the mountain.

Here is a picture of the first ladder we came across. It doesn’t look like much, but when you realize that there is a dizzying drop only feet away from the base of this manmade contraption … well, you get the idea.

Here is a photo of another section a bit higher up. It’s more difficult to make out the iron hold-bars, but if you look closely, you’ll see them nestled into the crevices between those two converging walls of stone.

I didn’t take many photos after this one because my hands were much too busy gripping iron rails and the sharp edges of stone that would keep me from plummeting to my death amidst the lovely scent of fir trees.

For the next hour, the tension that had been sitting like a truck stop breakfast in the pit of our stomachs began to ascend. It crept up our spines in tingles that were both exciting and chilling. It wrapped itself around our hearts, causing them to beat faster and occasionally stop all together. It settled for a while in our throats, making it harder to swallow our fears. Finally, it got inside our heads. As if working in tandem with our inner turmoil, Mother Nature began to stir things up as well. The lovely fog had become a menacing net that encircled the island. The overcast skies had darkened and glowered at us. Worst of all, the wind had turned from playful to vengeful and was curling its strong fingers around the exposed bits of ledge with increasing vehemence.

My beau was in the lead. I followed, and a couple from New York kept pace just behind us. We tossed wisecracks back and forth. Mr. New York inquired if there was a Starbucks nearby. I “read” the evening news headlines, “Ill-prepared hikers trapped on Precipice Trail as raging weather closed in on the cliffs. Four missing. The worst feared.”

At each new plateau, my darling called back that we were “almost there.” He kept promising that the worst was behind us, but at each turn we found ourselves looking at another, more challenging bit of the ascent. Just when we thought we must have conquered the most difficult stretch of slippery ledge, another, narrower passage would appear – this one without any handy iron bars for support. We scooted along on our butts, digging our toes into the cracks that ran unnervingly through the rock that supported us. Our hands ached with gripping at rock edges and rough surfaces that offered no purchase other than the friction of skin on stone. The forced bravado of our banter devolved into harsh words of tough-love encouragement and then silence. The wind became increasingly malicious.

The last bit of the path involved navigating a fifteen-foot length of slanting and smooth ledge without any handholds and then swinging around a blind corner (thank goodness, with handholds) that jutted out over a crevice in the rocks which allowed for an unobstructed view of the 800-foot drop to the cliff’s base. I very nearly became paralyzed on that spot, my back glued to the wall. I marveled at the idiocy of my predicament. I laughed cynically at our human need to wrestle with nature. I wondered how my daughter would fare without me.

And then, a few minutes later, we were on the summit. Did I fall to my knees and kiss the blessedly horizontal ground beneath my feet? No. I immediately began formulating this post in my head. Playing the hike back in my still-reeling mind, it was easy to see the similarities between our foolish escapade and a tension-filled storyline:

  1. The scene for potential disaster had been set in the weather, our unpreparedness, and the challenge of the feat.
  2. The point of no return had been clear and ominous – reading the warning sign and going ahead anyway.
  3. The mood of the situation had become increasingly serious as the level of danger grew.
  4. The “what-ifs” became scarier and scarier as we climbed.
  5. The heightened levels of risk and fear were reflected in our behaviors and interactions.
  6. Each time we thought we had finally conquered the mountain, one more obstacle appeared in our path.

Whether you’re writing about a physical adventure or an emotional transformation, you can use these same techniques to add page-turning tension to your story. Think about how to set the stage and how to elevate the stakes. Remember to show how the increased tension affects your characters. How do they deal with the situation, inwardly and outwardly? Plant “what-ifs” in your reader’s mind, giving them a reason to read on. And never be afraid to throw everything you can think of at your hero. That’s what heroes are made for. Show your love for your characters not by protecting them, but by giving them the chance to come out victorious against all the odds.

And never, never forget that no matter what happens to her, a writer will turn every situation – even a life-threatening one (perhaps, especially a life-threatening one) – into fodder for her writing. It’s what we do.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who, among other things, works as a marketing strategist and copywriter. She helps small businesses, start-ups, artists, and authors with branding, platform development, content marketing and social media. She also blogs. A lot. She is a mom, a singer, and a dreamer who believes in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Look her up on facebook or follow her on twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

3 thoughts on “How to Create Story Tension in 6 Life-threatening Steps

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I admire your adaptation of your experience into a blog post that graphically illustrates your points through the storytelling. But I also admire your courage in making the climb in the first place. I would have been with the first family you met headed back down–or, at the very least, I would have done a one-eighty when I saw that sign.

    Since I sort of remind myself of the lion in the Wizard of Oz, I enjoy creating characters who are risk-takers. And since I now prefer my own life to be relatively free from chaos (although my years on earth have taken me through plenty), I love building stories with lots of struggle, tension, and disastrous consequences.

    Following you up that mountain certainly jump-started my day. Glad you returned safely, and thanks again for sharing.

  2. @Cheri – Thanks for the comment :) … and the kudos. I’m not sure I was so much brave as just wandering in the wrong direction and realizing halfway up that there was no turning back. My beau wants to do is again, but I’m feeling like once is probably enough!

    From the looks of the true story on your blog, you’ve had quite a series of adventure with writing and publishing … possibly more harrowing (and rewarding) than my afternoon hike up a cliff face. Good luck with the latest book! :)

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