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WWBP: You Can't Win With These People · 8:15pm Aug 15th, 2017

So this is a short one, and a specific one, but I just got asked an interesting question, and I thought I'd expand on it in here:
How do you deal with characters in a horror story getting a victory, a big win, without killing the sense of tension in the story.

The answer to this can be more broadly applied, especially to action and broader survival stories like Hatchet or The Martian. I'll be focusing on horror, but this is really an answer to the broader question; How do I let my characters win when the story isn't over yet.

Wins are important. Without them, your story becomes tedious, a drag. Good storytelling, after all, isn't just effectively conveying emotion; A good story conveys the widest variety of emotions possible, as precisely as possible, with as natural transitions as possible.

Genre, then, is more like picking a chord than a note.

Even in the worst horror, you can't be doom and gloom all the time. You can't just keep having people lose. Well, I mean, you can... it just makes for a less effective story if there isn't at least the illusion of victory, occasionally.

That being said, I'm already contradicting myself in my head. That's a problem that can be solved with escalation; surely? They nearly succeed, you get the moment of triumph from the near success, it's snatched away from them at the last second, and their next option becomes worse than their previous, but still available to them?

But no, it's still consistent with the original sentence, isn't it? You're still feeling the near-wins as wins for as long as it takes before the rug is pulled out from under you, as it were. You still have those highs and triumphs, and are rudely snatched from them. You can effectively do this as long as you can still reasonably escalate the threat, and still reasonably keep the feeling that a win is possible, if not inevitable at a great cost.


To bring this around to the original question, there are two interesting answers I would go with here:

The first option, the one more unique to horror, is they get everything they wanted. Through hard struggle and determination they finally get to the weapons cache, full of assault rifles, silver bullets, crossbows with stakes, land mines, the Safe Zone, behind the Big Barricade. Whatever. They are now powerful. They are strong. They wipe out enemies that were screwing them hard in the first act trivially.

Then they lose it.

The grenade launcher had one shot, and you used it. The rifles run dry. The generators only had so much petrol. And now they're in the same situation they were before, but they've lost what they risked to get this triumph in the first place.

This is the contrast solution. You give them a sense of power, what it's like to be powerful, only to make them realize how powerless they are again without it, even though they're still in the same place they were thirty pages ago.

That's the first option: Give them all the power, just to make them feel even more helpless when it goes again. Only ever seems to go that you don't know what you got 'til it's gone.

This was done very effectively with the latest Spiderman movie; Tony Stark confiscating the suit was this in play.
This was done too effectively in The Martian; It was a gutpunch every time, but the feeling of the gutpunches became too tedious and consistent by the end, I felt. I adore this book, love it to bits, but it's a fantastic example of what happens when you have too much of a good thing in a story.

The second option is neater, but I wouldn't say it's better. A neater plot, after all, can be more predictable, even if it's easier to pull off. The second option is the constant escalation I was referring to above. I've already set it up, so I feel like I can get to the gears faster; A story has tension so long as the stakes always raise, the heroes always react reasonably to those changing circumstances. It's logical, then, that making them have a minor win condition kills the stakes, and thus they shouldn't be allowed to have their win.

Not so.

In the second option, the situation develops. The threat is escalated proportionately to the newfound power the protagonists feel they have. In the first option the threat doesn't change, but the character's mentality towards it does -- it's just as powerful with the giant I Win button as it is without -- but instead what we're going to do is jack up the threat.

The survivors reach a safe zone. The barricades are up, the supplies are good, the ammo is high. Previously they had to forage, run raids, survive day-to-day. Now they're rooted, fortified, supplied and armed. No tension, right? You could do the Walking Dead route by playing up interpersonal drama in the downtime but I personally find that... tedious. Cliche. Forced. Reliant on idiot balls and bad communication to drive the plot. There's a much better tool in reach.

Up the scale. They're in one place. They're rooted. They're not foraging or running raids. Now everyone knows where to find them, how to find them, and they're not moving. They're not taking on one at a time, now; They're preparing for a massive siege.

You killed the local vampire, and united your town; Now you've drawn enough attention to the Vampire Lord, when before you weren't worth the bother.

This one works because what you're doing is retroactively showing how small and ultimately meaningless their struggle has been until now. Their previous successes are rendered... well, 'cute'. The heroes, for everything they've learned and accomplished, are still way out of their league. Out of the oven and into the frying pan, as it were.

Escalate. Always, always escalate. And when you can't reasonably escalate anymore, end your story.

As an addendum, Monarch Dodora pointed out a modification of the first one I truly appreciate: Punish them for feeling powerful. Punish them for hubris. If you aren't going to take their new toys away, give them a heavy price; Wild firing kills one of the last survivors because they started getting careless about ammunition. Staying behind a wall means they stop keeping watch, and get complacent. The trick here is to remind the audience that a tool is only as effective as the craftsman wielding it. That power now needs to feel like a liability.

Shoutouts to; Ferret, Cavemonkynick, Horizon, DJthomp, Ariamaki, Hoopy McGee, Serifina, Monarch Dodora, Darkszero, Sarge1995

Report MrNumbers · 706 views · #WWBP #advice
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Comments ( 21 )

A quick riffling through the Horror Movie tropes can help here.
1) The monster has a mate.
2) The monster was only the gatekeeper for a more powerful monster, who it devoted its life to protecting the world from. Good work breaking it, heroes.
3) The defeated monster was the minion for a more powerful evil being, who *must* be one of the group of heroes. Now, all those heroes point the hard-won weapons at each other, trying to find the real killer.
4) The monster's form was an 'eggshell' of sorts, and now that it is 'cracked' the true form of the evil is revealed.
5) (the 'norm' answer) Now that the monster is dead, it turns back into human form, leaving the victorious heroes to explain to the police how Doctor Hyde, model citizen of the town and frequent donor to the Policeman's Ball, is now lying dead on the floor of his kitchen, full of silver bullets.

You're still feeling the near-wins as wins for as long as it takes before the rug is pulled out from under you, as it were.

I think that foreshadowing future (disastrous) events is a technique that can mitigate the drop in tension due to a mid-plot win. E.g., “They relaxed behind their impenetrable barricade, unaware of the horror that slowly tunneled up from below them.”

You could do the Walking Dead route by playing up interpersonal drama in the downtime but I personally find that... tedious.

You are far too kind to the writers of that show. Any English Lit class will teach that conflict is necessary for drama, but they so often fail to make it clear that meaningful conflict is what’s wanted. I think that's why there's so much idiotic bickering in many shows.

One more I'd add, somewhat related to both of those: let them have the win, while the punch comes from the other direction. They united the village and are safe from vampires... but not from the virus in the water supply. They found the weapons, they're armed to the teeth... too bad this is all a conspiracy to make them look like threats to the police, who are out looking for the cultists.

This one does have dangers, the clearest one is that your twist can't come out of absolutely nowhere. Foreshadowing is great, but it at least needs to fit the tone, genre, and world you built.

But on the other hand, a big benefit is that your protagonists get to keep the prize they found, and if you're going for a win of some sort at the end those can be the pieces that lead to victory, just used creatively or counterintuitively.

Oh! One more that's a totally different take. A long time ago I made a blog post about an essay I found about the difference between "can they?" and "will they?" plots. Basically, "can they" is are they capable: do they have the weapons and skills to succeed. "Will they?" is usually a moral, ethical, or psychological dilemma -- no one questions whether Batman can kill the Joker, the tension is in will he, or how will he avoid it.

Any "will they?" plot can have as many "yes he can!" wins as you want -- Batman can learn how to shoot lasers out of his eyes and recruit a troop of space marines to back him! -- as long as there's still the question of, when it comes to the climax, will they go through with it?

I was trying to give very general principles rather than specific ideas, but these are fantastic more-specific examples of the general ideas; Invalidate the success (3, 5), or escalate the threat (1, 2, 4).

... I think another way to look at this might be; "Does the threat get bigger, or does the nature of it change?" I'll think about that.

This is actually a part of why I dislike horror. Yay, they achieved a win. That means they are going to be punished for it in some way. Probably via the murder of the character I actually like. Joy. While I know that these guidelines are usable in other genres, there is something about horror that feels like it enjoys making everyone miserable a little too much, and it almost always kills the story for me.

On the other hand, 'Escalate, always escalate' can read to the later seasons of Stargate - or to The Princess Problem MLP has, and the Worf Effect getting mad overplayed.

A good tool, used badly, is not a bad tool.

You always have to be careful with escalation that you do not get too big too fast. DB actually had that problem and you can see it if you watch the start, middle and end. There is a feeling of good escalation through I would say the first half of the Frieza saga but after that you ca start seeing that it gets harder to show the escalating power. Many times the explosions become actually less impressive later but are told to be more impressive because it is supposed to be more powerful.

Moral of the story is that you need to know how long the story is actually going to go and then base the escalation of threat based on that. Stories that have no known end point will have a problem with this but if you know what you want to do you can avoid this problem.

As an alternate, they could find out that their win conditions are wrong. They might spend the first third of the book looking for macguffin X to break the curse, only to find out that they'd misread the instructions. Not an escalation, and technically they acheived their goals. Bonus points if the readers knew all along; then you've got the tension of "will they survive to get the macuffin" and "will they figure out in time that they're wrong"?

I've vague memories of a story in which the characters gave up, thinking that they'd failed, when they readers knew that they'd succeeded.

Nice post. What is WWBP?

Weekly Wednesday Blog Post, abbreviated.

I've rather been poor at keeping up with the 'weekly' bit, but I'm still making an honest attempt, I hope.

Writing a victory in horror is like writing a sex story that goes past the orgasm. The feel good part of the story isn't as important as what they do with the literal mess in their hands when it's over with.

Pyrric victories, victories that turn into losses later on, and small victories.

Say this is a monster horror like Jason

Pyrric victories: got away but got hurt or hurt the monster but lost a friend/got hurt, etc.

Victories that turn into losses later on: get away but get ended up trapped there, defeated the monster but actually made it stronger later on, etc.

Small victories: reprieves from the monster, getting hits in without getting hurt, emotional moments with friends/allies.

The best kind of horror is the kind where you can't measure successes at all, since what you're facing is an entirely different order of magnitude than what your protagonists are capable of dealing with. That the goal isn't to achieve any kind of victory, at all, but to simply evade and survive the situation to your best ability.

I'm just reading Southern Reach-trilogy that deals with this very situation. Scientists, bureaucrats and soldiers all together beating their collective heads against the proverbial wall in trying to make any sense out of a small geographic region that defies all attempts at understanding its mysteries, where every single research party either fails to return or returns in an altered state of consciousness with no memory of what occurred. In my humble opinion, there's no better horror than the fear of the unknown, not any definable enemy or a monster.


That the goal isn't to achieve any kind of victory, at all, but to simply evade and survive the situation to your best ability.

That is a kind of victory in the context of narrative writing, yes.

4635854 That tends to be my feeling too, but I can still appreciate that horror can be done well or badly.

Thanks for the shoutout Numbers.

I'm not sure this is entirely true, but it's damn funny.

It was meant to be a silly joke. Honestly Numbies did a very good job with this.

The only thing I might say, as real advice in addition to Numbies', is that the tension of horror boils down to the relation between the hero and the reader, and the amount of agency given to the characters. The reader should feel terror because they're empathizing with the characters, and the characters should feel terror because, ultimately, what they lack is agency in the face of a threat.

Most people understand that there can be a lack of tension when a character is so powerful that there is no sense of urgency or peril. The same can go for horror, as an inverse. If there is no HOPE for the characters, the story is boring. Agency is a character's ability to change the outcome of the story with their decisions, and if that character is fucked no matter what he or she does, then why do I care? You need to breadcrumb the character, and the reader, by giving them enough agency in their predicament to have the hope of making it, even if it's something as simple of "We'll be okay if we can make it to dawn." By giving them a cache of weapons, or a book with the true history of the creature, or a child's riddle that can send it back to Hell, you're giving them enough agency to create a sense of possible escape. This is your sense of urgency.

Peril can't exist without possible failure, but it also can't, or at least should not, exist without possible success.

EDIT: And don't even get me started on stinger scenes that try to stoke the embers of a resolved story by having a jump scare at the end. "Oh no, the monster lived after all, your struggle was all for naught, the nightmare continues, isn't that scaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaary?" Hate that shit so much.

Is so right, I'm annoyed I wasn't the one who wrote this comment.

Definitely true. (Cabin in the Woods is a recent standout, for instance.) King of Beggars actually sums up the core problem pretty well. The mistake that is so easy to make with horror.

Having it turn out the monster survived can actually be okay. It makes a decent sequel hook, for example. But it has to be done right or it feels forced.

As you say, using it as jump scare that shows or at least heavily implies the surviving protagonists are killed is wrong and terrible. An example of a way it could work if well executed would be to indicate it crawled off injured to lick its wounds and thus the protagonists have at a bare minimum bought themselves time and perhaps even saved themselves, if it decides to pursue new targets next time in hopes of easier prey.

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