One common setup for a story goes like this:

  • We have the heroes on one side
  • We have the villains on the other side
  • The bad guy has an evil plot that will cause some undesirable result
  • The heroes know about the plot and are trying to stop it

Very frequently in such stories--in almost all of them, in fact--the villain either actually succeeds in accomplishing their goal or comes within a hair's breadth of it, with the heroes utterly defeated, before some thing happens and the good guys are finally able to improbably snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. A few examples:

Star Wars: The Death Star is literally seconds away from blowing up the rebels' base when Luke scores the decisive shot.

Thor: The Destroyer rampages throughout the town, defeats all of Thor's companions, and blasts Thor almost to death before he suddenly regains his worthiness and manages to turn things around.

Aladdin: The only way to stop Jafar is to literally let him win and become an all-powerful GENIEEEE!!!

Harry Potter: It's only possible to defeat Voldemort after Voldemort kills Harry and the Death Eaters overrun both the Wizarding government and (most of) Hogwarts.

The Order of the Stick: Not finished yet, but the story is clearly approaching the end, and there are currently two different major villains, each with their own distinct plan to effectively ruin the world as we know it. Both are currently only one step away from total victory.

I could go on (and on and on...) but you get the point.

At first glance you'd imagine the purpose of this device is to build tension, but that only works until you've seen it enough times to be able to predict that this is exactly what's going to happen, again. So, I have to ask:

Is there any other reason to use this device in a narrative, beyond "to build tension"? And what good alternatives are there to it (that don't involve the bad guy actually emerging victorious)?

  • wait, OOTS is still going? I thought he stopped that a couple of years ago! Oh man, I have so much to catch up on
    – user18397
    Apr 20, 2016 at 22:52
  • 2
    @Thomo Yeah. The author injured his hand a few years ago and had to stop temporarily to recuperate, but he's been back at it for quite a while. Apr 21, 2016 at 11:27
  • 3
    Well, there goes my weekend
    – user18397
    Apr 21, 2016 at 22:12

7 Answers 7


It's an attempt to build tension to the maximum possible.

The villain has won. Oh no. Much tension.

Will Hero be able to get out of this? How will Hero ever get out of this?

The author is hoping these unstated questions will drive tension and keep the reader interested.


Try to think of this not as a mere means to create suspense, but in terms of character development:

Every story is about change. The Three Act structure provides a suitable framework to illustrate the change that your story deals with: Act I shows why change is necessary. Act II achieves change. Act III consolidates the change -- or "transformation" -- that has been achieved in Act II.

The sequence "Villain nearly wins --> Hero defeats him in the ultimate battle" for me is Act III: The protagonist has commited to defeating the villain in Acts I and II, all that is left to show is how he succeeds. (Note that the transformations here might be multi-layered: Evil has to be defeated, the protagonist has to rise above his previous self and become a hero in the Greek sense of the word, etc.)

However, transformation is not easy, and good will is hardly ever sufficient to bring it about. New skills must be acquired and the proagonist's personality must adapt to the challenge, either subtly or in the process of a general overhaul. In my opinion, the protagonist desperately needs the final push of the villain's almost-win. Without it, lethargy would win and the protagonist would be provided with no reason to actually change. The most fierce enemy of transformation is inertia -- the belief that things are not so bad, actually, that problems will just disappear on their own accord if you give them enough time, that some mysterious law of nature will balance the scales and re-establish stability, no intervention necessary, thank you. Although the protagonist has comitted to transformation, he's not yet fully convinced that it is inevitable for him to actively bring it about. Alternatively, something other than inertia might be holding him back, a lack of knowledge, fear, you name it -- which, in a wider sense, are just different flavours of the same phenomenon: inertia.

Being almost defeated by the villain provides the momentum that propels the protagonist out of his inertia and allows him to act. It is an integral part of every story and, arguably, one that can not, under any circumstances, be omitted. There's a reason we call this moment The Climax.

  • +1 for the words on character development and not just arbitrary tension.
    – zr00
    Feb 13, 2018 at 17:54
  • Pulling from OP's pop-culture references a great example of your answer (+1 btw) would be when Thor awakens in Ragnorak after Odin asks him, "Are you the god of hammers?" This to me at least is when we go from Act 2 to 3 as that is when Thor's needed change has been achieved.
    – J Crosby
    Aug 13, 2019 at 17:54

Is there any other reason to use this device in a narrative, beyond "to build tension"?

No, but that's a heck of a good reason. Tension is the core of storytelling. But I do see your point about the way that the supposedly tension-increasing device of building up the stakes defeats itself when everybody knows that the heroes will win at the last moment.

And what good alternatives are there to it (that don't involve the bad guy actually emerging victorious)?

Some suggestions:

1) Do make the bad guy actually emerge victorious. Sometimes. When your readers know that your heroes can lose and can die they'll be that much more scared in your next story, or the next part of this story.

2) Do make the bad guy actually emerge victorious - but then have it turn out that things were not as they seemed, and his victory is a happy result. Either the bad guy was actually the good guy, or one or both sides had misunderstood the situation.

3) Set your story amidst a huge conflict but only as background. The tension in your story is whether your heroes will survive. Some very gripping war movies do this. Everybody knows from history who wins WWII; they don't know what's going to happen to Private Ryan.

4) They think it's all over… Consider the end of the The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the films). The heroes have defeated Sauron, Aragorn has been crowned king. The hobbits return home to the dear old Shire to enjoy a well earned retirement, right? Wrong. The conflict described in "The Scouring of the Shire" is on a far smaller scale than the epic battles earlier, but it is gut-wrenching because you realise that nowhere is safe.


It's in order to raise the stakes of the situation. When the heroes reach a situation where they fight or they fall, it's makes you much more invested than if the heroes have to fight or meh, someone else might come along and beat the bad guys. There were probably plenty of people that could have defeated The Destroyer in Thor, but they weren't available at the time. This meant that Thor had to step up and be heroic in order to win.

A lot of the time the heroes fight at the last minute because it is the last minute. They go into the fight unprepared and outmatched, which is what makes them heroic. They fight despite the odds being stacked against them. Usually if they had more time, most heroes could prepare much better, but then it would just be a story of two people fighting. The rebels in Star Wars could have called for some reinforcements and fought the Death Star with many more fighters, but because they were in a race with time it meant they had to go then and there.

It's also much easier to root for the underdog fighting against terrible situations, as opposed to supporting the person with all of the power. Which is why in stories like Harry Potter, the Villain has to regain all of his power before the epic battle takes place. If the good guys had attempted to end the fight at the end of book 4, it would have been much easier and much less satisfying for the reader.


It's a matter of how high you want the drama to go.

Author Aaron Michael Ritchie has offered this example (and I like to use it):

Let's compare a typical episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation to one from the reboot of Battlestar Galactica.

In both episodes there is the Unthinkable Occurrence that must be avoided because it's awful.

In STNG, we follow the crew as they struggle to avoid the UO, and just barely succeed.

In BG, we follow the cast as they struggle to avoid the UO, and just barely fail. The UO happens, and things get even worse. The cast struggles and just barely succeeds at coping with the new circumstances, drawing on the best of who they are.

Which is the more interesting story? That's a matter of preference. Which is the more exciting story? I think Battlestar Galactica wins, because it uses a story arc that is almost unavoidably more exciting.


Is there any other reason to use this device in a narrative, beyond "to build tension"?

Yes. In Story Robert McKee describes the structure of a story as a series of attempts at a goal met by increasingly dire setbacks until the protagonist is forced to the limits of human experience and must make a final decision, a final change of values, that alters the course of their life forever.

Having the villain's foot on the hero's throat is one way to script this moment. But this is the pivotal moral crisis of the whole story. The whole structure and satisfactory resolution of the story depends on it. But there are also many other ways to bring the protagonist to this point other than the villain's boot on their throat. The hero does not have to be at the villain's mercy. But they do have to reach the crisis of values.

Bringing them to this point will, of course, produce tension, but it is not a "device to create tension". It is the essence of the story structure.

For that matter, you should not need devices to create tension at all. Tensions should arise out of the moral force of the story itself -- the great question that the protagonist must face in order to achieve the object of their desire. This is why a good story is just as good the second time around even when you know exactly what is going to happen.


A good story is fundamentally an even "match" between a hero and villain, or a protagonist and antagonist.

The hero wins because s/he gets in the last shot, blow, etc.

But in order to make it an "even" match, the villain has to get in the next to last shot.

A story in which the hero first "scratches," then wounds, then kills the villain without being threatened in any way wouldn't be very interesting.

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