I'm at the end of chapter 1 of my book, where the protagonist (a cyberterrorist) commits his first terror attacks by attacking the servers of a power plant and a government at the same time.

My problem is, these kind of attacks aren't as exciting as direct terror attacks (e.g. bomb attacks), because it's "only" computers being attacked; the personal staff is pretty much safe.

So. How do I write a terror attack on servers? How do I make this exciting without an immediate, personal threat?

  • I've made an edit to your question, to focus on the particular issue you described, and make clear its applicability to other writers as well. Please let me know if this isn't what you intended :)
    – Standback
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 14:46

5 Answers 5


The classic antagonist against a white hat hacker is black ice, but that is still fictional. Black ice is computer countermeasures which can literally kill the attacker despite their distance from the scene of the crime. Grey ice, identity discovering countermeasures can also be great sources of tension for the hacker.

However, to make this question and answer more useful to other readers, let's cover a few other, non-computer-ish, non-terrorist-ish options... Tension arises from a perception of risk, not from risk's reality. Your hacker doesn't need to actually be in any danger at all, as long as he believes that he (or someone he cares about) is in danger. That danger can be real or imaginary, local or distant, immediate or eventual.

Back to your specific scenario, your protagonist may be concerned that these actions will not be seen as the noble acts of rebellion that he believes they are. He may be worried about hurting his cause with this attack. If the government he is attacking has control of the media, he may have legitimate concerns, which you can built upon within his quavering mind, having him pause after every firewall falls. "Should I continue?", "Have I already gone too far?" With the right build up, his entry of the final computer command to trigger the attack will be a tension bomb.


It's the same kind of silent/non-immediate terror that happens when a virus epidemic strikes. There is fear of the future even if the person doesn't have the disease or doesn't know anybody who has it.

With cyber attacks, you could definitely play up the tension of "What will happen next? Could he break in? Is he willing to hurt people?" and while it's not an immediate threat, it can definitely create suspense in your writing.

You could have the cyberterrorist do things like steal valuable information with which he could do serious harm if he exposed or used the info. Maybe he stole the blueprints to build a powerful weapon. Or maybe he stole the location of some top secret object. Or he stole a whole database of people's personal information; who knows what he could do with that!

It's a toe curling anticipation sort of fear.


You can create tension by saying it is dangerous. Like 'The terrorist has hacked our computers, only God knows what is next! He could do anything!' and stuff similar to these. You can also have one of your characters say what was on the computers and why the terrorist getting his hands on that info is harmful.

Also, in popular culture, it is shown that hackers can hack their way around a building. Like they can disable the alarm, open safes etc. These kind of stuff aren't personal, but can be harmful if something valuable is stolen.


Make them care about the people affected by the attack in the same way as they would care if it happened to them or to a friend or family member.

Fictional situations that do not put anyone's life at threat can actually be more tense than life-threatening situations because (a) there is less reassurance to the reader from the conventions of fiction, and (b) unlike a life-or-death situation, they are within the experience of the vast majority of your readers.

Often one can guess with confidence that, yes, the hero will manage to deactivate the atomic bomb in the penultimate chapter, but one can't be nearly so sure that a sympathetic character in Chapter 2 won't have their hopes and ambitions dashed.

Terrorism is scary but will, I trust, touch very few of your readers' lives and so often doesn't feel quite real. However if your reader has shared the plant security manager's uneasy sense that something is not right and his worry about saying something when he has no proof (when management already think he's prone to panic after that false alarm last month), then they will really feel for him in the moment of dreadful realisation when the attack finally happens. He has to make a decision in haste which turns out to be wrong - that's happened to them. He can't immediately remember the correct emergency procedure - they've been there. He may not be under any fear of death in this attack, but he is terrified that after this he's going to lose his job and find it hard to get another to support his family - they can relate to that fear.


these kind of attacks aren't as exciting as direct terror attacks

Au contraire, they are as exciting as you write them to be. Your job, as the author, is to convey the emotion you want your reader to feel. Whether excitement, fear, abandonment, ecstasy; no matter.

My simplest advice to you is that if you can't make it exciting, then you're not excited by it. And if you're not, there's no way your reader will be. Writers vend an intriguing form of Meisnering, in that it's third-party, nontemporal, but it's still conveying emotion to a reader nonetheless.

So when you're writing that scene, feel it. Put yourself in your characters' shoes, and run through the scenario in first person. What is at stake? What would you be worried about? What would you try to do? Are you calm, are you nervous, are you intrigued by the idea that somebody managed to get past your Triple-blind Encrypted Reverse Proxy TBERP™ software that six years of Ivy League mathematics helped you build?

Think of all the movies you've seen that this has happened in...

"Something's weird..."

"Define weird."

"I don't know, it's... like something keeps pinging against the CORS."

"Pinging the CORS? Like a DOS attack?"

"I don't think so. It's just a 2-bit packet, it's not-- oh my god, CORS just went down!"


"Not just CORS, all three blades just went! What the f--" His sentence is finished by the team mascot, a smartass parrot that keeps repeating WTF, WTF, throughout the remainder of the scene.

Alarms start ringing, "Processor cycles are going nuts... 81% usage, 96... 105!"


"How is that possible? 112%, 116%... PC thermal readings rising!"

"121! The server board is going to melt!"

WTF! ASCii art of Donald Trump starts popping up on all the screens in the room

"Firewall is down! TBERP is totally compromised!"


"Somebody strangle that damn parrot!"

Explosions are physical: action drama. Head games, tension, stress: that's the stuff of psycho drama.

My example is lame. Write something better. You're a writer.

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