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To clarify:

There are two parts to the book (or I might split them into separate books), one with my main protagonist, and the second is a prequel, showing the protagonist's father's story.

Both storylines are high fantasy, with war being the major issue.

My problem is that, since the father is seen in the later part, we know he survived whatever happened before. He goes through moments when, from the character's perspective, he might not live, but the reader knows he does.

How do I make the readers feel the tension, even though they know the character lives?

  • You add a different conflict besides life/death. Maybe he is suppressing his real self, and the audience wants to know if he will ultimately be true to it. Maybe he has a quest and the audience wants to know if he completes it. Maybe there is a love interest and the audience wants to know if he gets the girl/boy. There are many sources of tension. It's not easy to write, but once you start to practice you see that it is not about life or death most of the time. We go into every superhero movie knowing the hero will survive, but feel tense anyway. Why? because we want them to win. Not survive. – DPT Aug 12 '18 at 0:49
  • Try reading some Michael Crichton; in some stories, you know the MC survives, but the action is so compelling you mostly ignore or don't think about that fact. – John Doe Aug 13 '18 at 23:09
  • Almost every TV show has this problem. The viewer knows that the main characters are unlikely to be killed. So the tension is not, "will the hero survive this", but "HOW will the hero survive this". – Jay Aug 14 '18 at 21:44
  • Before I saw the historical drama "The Right Stuff", I read that one of the main characters in the movie was the test pilot Chuck Yeager, and that the real Chuck Yeager had a small cameo role in the film. As I was watching the movie, every time Yeager got into a dangerous situation I was thinking to myself, "Does he survive? Is this where he gets killed?" It wasn't until after I left the theater that it occurred to me, Of course he didn't get killed in any of those plane crashes. He was still alive to be in the movie. Duh! – Jay Aug 14 '18 at 21:48
22

Tension is caused by reader's wanting to know "what happens next".

The MC survives in nearly every novel, in fact the MC dies so infrequently that people don't like those novels. They assume your MC will survive.

Tension is created by situations in which the reader isn't sure what is going to happen, the solution to whatever dilemma is happening on page 50 is not obvious. Say the house is on fire and the MC is trapped. It is only page 50, we know the MC will survive, we can even know that this situation will be resolved in the next 5 or 10 pages, we just aren't sure how the MC will survive, so we keep turning the pages.

If you watch the movie "Die Hard", you never doubt for a second that Bruce Willis is going to live through his ordeal and prevail. The same thing for "Taken", or 007: James Bond will never die in Bond flick. Neither will Harry Potter, or the MC of any detective series. Sherlock is not going to die.

Personal death isn't the only thing the MC has to fear; they can fear pain, imprisonment, torture (that doesn't have to leave any marks; e.g. most people don't know if you have broken an arm or leg in the distant past), injury like being shot or stabbed.

They can also fear the death of friends and loved ones, of children, of innocent strangers (all of which you can put in jeopardy, or even kill).

They can also fear failure, just because somebody lived doesn't mean they succeeded in their previous mission.

The audience can know the MC will live. The audience can know the MC will succeed (e.g. 007, Jason Bourne, nearly any detective series, every Romantic Comedy has a happy ending).

Obviously, that is not where the tension comes from. It comes from the audience not knowing what happens next, and always having an open question in their mind about how some situation is going to turn out. It shouldn't always be the same question throughout the novel, it can and should be a long series of steps in solving the main question, some of them with failures and setbacks along the way. Readers will become numb and bored by success if it seems guaranteed. A mix of failure and success keeps them guessing, and what they are guessing about is "how THIS situation" turns out or is overcome: There is your tension, even if the final results are known.

  • 2
    I should note that in some stories the audience knows full well the MC is going to die from the beginning; e.g. A story about a mother that knows she will soon die of cancer, but the struggle is to provide for her young children before she does. In such cases the audience is still not surprised by the MC death; and the tension is will she overcome the obstacles of both disease and resistance to accomplish her goal? In fact if she doesn't die that can be taken negatively; as many did when the "Breaking Bad" series violated the whole premise of the show by "curing" Walter White (the MC). – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 11 '18 at 14:14
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    In summary: #1 How are you going to succeed? #2 What happens along the way? – RonJohn Aug 11 '18 at 17:02
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    “Sherlock is not going to die“... Conan Doyle meant Sherlock to die and only brought him back to life because of public pressure. :D (source) – jkd Aug 11 '18 at 19:15
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    @jkd Well, let's talk about modern Sherlockian detectives; then, since we answer questions here for modern, living writers dealing with modern reader expectations. Perhaps in something advertised as a series finale (of books or a TV show) the audience will plausibly fear the death of the MC. But in a regular novel, the modern audience doesn't like to be surprised by such an ending. If your title is "Death of a Salesman", they are not surprised that Willy Loman dies at the end. Otherwise, the modern reader expects authors to engineer at least a happy-ish ending, not a complete loss. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 11 '18 at 19:53
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    @jkd One exception that can be pulled off is an MC that dies to accomplish their mission; (SPOILER) like Bruce Willis in "Armageddon", staying behind to manually detonate a nuke to save everybody on Earth; including, of course, the daughter he loves more than his own life. (and the audience sees he succeeded). Even AC Doyle took this route with Sherlock to defeat Moriarty. Intentionally dying for a winning cause is a noble death that can be acceptable, but making the conscious and deliberate choice of death is an important component of it, if anybody wants to write that. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Aug 11 '18 at 20:00
8

This is a novice mistake. If the worst thing you can think to do to a character is kill them, you're not thinking hard enough. There are all sorts of ways to get hurt. Love, family, friends, status, and property are but a few things that can be lost or threatened. Tension is conflict, and conflict can be found at all scales, tiny and large.

Tension, A Series of Definitions

  1. The state of being stretched tight
  2. Mental or emotional strain
  3. A strained relationship
  4. The relationship between conflicting ideas, qualities, demands, or implications.

How Do I Tension?

It's right there. You create a conflict. Conflict begets tension. Conflict of any size, that is important to your readers introduces tension into the story. It's not any more complicated than that, but of course picking the right conflicts is itself an art. You know if you're doing it right by the following

Literary Tension.

Tension is a measurable feeling of dissonance that a reader feels, that is in relationship to their expectations and hopes and feelings in a given moment in a story.

This often looks like it is caused by the immediate mystery of what might happen next; but, it is actually connected to the feelings you are generating within a reader; which might include the excellent feelings of expectation, uncertainty, and anxiety, but are not limited to those feelings.

Tension: Death

Death is a tense experience. It's traumatic. It is the thing many people fear the most. If you give it gravity & weight & make the thing that is dying familiar and loved, then the tension at the moment of the death, leading up to the death and even after the death is quite high. This correlation to emotion is not a mistake; tension is the measurement of emotion. That is why we value it in stories.

You can have near perfect information about an oncoming death being inevitable; and that will increase tension if you like the character and DO NOT WANT THEM TO DIE. That is the conflict. Your expectations/desires as a reader being in conflict.

Tension: Love

Can you have tension when you know two people will get together? Yes, if you ultimately don't know how or if the thing that you want ends up being different than the thing you know will happen. IE, you can know that two people end up happy together because you've seen the sequel. But, if option C is a much more likable person and leads to a much more likable relationship but can't be had for certain reasons, you may find that you actually want A & C to be together even though you know A & B together is just fine.

Of course it's much easier to inspire tension if your reader doesn't know whether A will end up with B or C; and D is threatening some sort of villainy to boot.

Tension: Situational

You may consider something like a power outage, which clearly ramps up the readers anxiety to be inspired by the lack of knowing what will happen. And it's true that this will happen; but this again enforces the wonderful definition above. Tension is the measurable feeling of dissonant emotions in a time and place within a story. In this case we're tweaking anxiety, perhaps fear; or even annoyance if we know who caused the power outage and feel some frustration towards that person. This type of anxiety might not play a role in our climax, but it can be a good thing to push interest early in the story before you've formed bonds with characters that can be pushed for higher levels of tension.

Tension: Etc

These were not nearly all forms of tension because tension results from the infinite spectrum of conflict. How do you tension? Take anything, set it at odds with anything else. The more that's in conflict and the stronger the emotion you are tweaking the higher the tension.

Your Problem

The tension in your prequel will have to do with reader expectations. You'll need to give them the hope for a better outcome, but serve them something inferior. In that way, even though they know the father will come out of this, they won't know in exactly what ways this will happen.

It would be a good idea to have this prequel affect some element you haven't expanded on so that there can be a sense of the unknown. Even though the unknown is not required for tension, it is a catalyst that makes tension stronger. Anything that increases the schism between what a reader wants and what they expect has the potential to increase tension.

This is often the reason so many prequels fail and I would caution you not to write one if you have another option at hand. If they're dealing with well known elements that lack of mystery does make it harder to write a lot of the little interceding bits.


A word of caution

If you piss off your readers, you don't get tension; you get bad reviews. There are obvious attempts to create tension that will instead piss readers off and send them running away. This is part of why writing is hard and everyone wants realistic, "good" writing.


Things to think about

  • Why does death, even though it is often expected, feel so tense?
  • Why does uncomfortable humor make you uncomfortable, even though you know so much about the situation?
  • If you know something bad will happen, what often accompanies that to make it more tense?
  • How do all those stories where people don't die, work?
4

Tension is, technically, the struggle between protagonist and antagonist when they both want the same thing.

Readers will experience a variety of emotions, vicarious and sympathetic, when they become invested in the outcome of a story and its world.
As JM Straczynski put it, not knowing what happens later is a minor aspect of the drama in any story. It matters less whether the main characters will live, or whether they will discover the bomb and disarm it before it explodes, than how exactly they respond to the dilemma — how it affects them.

It matters more, to the reader, whether they — the reader themself — get caught up in the story each time they read it.
If your characters are vivid, and if their interactions and choices seem genuine, then the reader will enjoy each reread as much, or more, than the first read.
You have the novelty versus treasury trade–off, of course, but any good author of a story knows that novelty is cheap — really, I wish that they weren't called “novels” any more. If you expect it to be the chief attraction of your story, then in a few years your story will end up out–of–print and scattered throughout secondhand bookstores in the ten–dollars–a–bag cabinets.

To simplify at the loss of some accuracy: most readers, except those who don't really care to read at all, care more about the story itself than they do about the outcome of the story.
Most of that concern is earned on an emotional level, yes, but it can be done intellectually and aesthetically too.

2

Life and death is actually a pretty low-stakes conflict in my opinion. Yes, of course, it's the ultimate thing we all want to avoid, but when it comes down to it, how many of us have experienced being dead?

That's right: No-one. If you have, then get back into the grave, unholy zombie.

Amadeus brings up a good point about tension coming from the reader being curious about what comes next rather than the end result, but it's also worth noting that there are so many different kinds of stakes in a story involving warfare.

Instead of 'will MC survive', it could be 'will MC have to grieve her friends' deaths' (something more people have experience of), 'will MC lose their home', 'will MC ever psychologically recover from the cold hand of war', et cetera, et cetera. These are all things people have actually gone through and the consequences of which can be richly explored, far more than being dead ever could.

There are so many sources of tension; life or death is really just a go-to 'all or nothing' variant on it.

1

The reader doesn't actually have to know that the father survives, not past a certain point anyway, if you don't specifically identify the MC's mother then the MC may already be on the way before we ever meet his father. You need not state this categorically, in fact better if you don't, but it can be strongly implied that the MC has been conceived before the father goes to war. Thus you need not necessarily remove his death as an option within the narrative.

Also as other's have aptly pointed out death need not be the highest stakes under the circumstances.

1

It's quite possible to feel tension and doubt about the outcome of a book you've read before many times --if you become immersed enough in it, you suspend your disbelief, and forget that you already know what happens.

So my advice is to work on making this the best and most immersive book you can, and don't worry about what the readers may already know about the outcome.

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    Very true, can't even tell you how many times I have reread "Murder On The Orient Express" and felt like I had no clue what would happen next. The writing pulls me in so much, that though I know the ending, I forget the nuance and fall in love with it again. – Rhettmartens Aug 14 '18 at 17:16
0

Technically, the survival of the father in the prequel is not guaranteed by his presence (or apparent presence) in the first story. The most obvious way of accomplishing this is to have the first story be "it was all a (pleasant) dream".

This could be presented in the title of the first story (e.g., An Heir's Choice: The Dream of Argoth) in which story "dream" could refer to the father's prophetic dream which started the quest and to the father's aspiration for his son (e.g., that he would be a hero like he was) but also to the story itself in the context of the prequel.

For example, the father's quest could be to destroy his ancestor's crown to end the threat of a great evil that entered the world by that ancestor's choice. Near the end of the story, the father could be spending the required three nights in the Chamber of Dreams before entering the King's Vault that holds the crown. Perhaps halfway through the story, the father discovered that ending the evil would require his death, and the first night's dream confirmed this; putting on the crown and taking responsibility for the ancestor's choice ends the evil and his life. The second and third nights' dreams could be presented in the text as a summary of the first story, where destroying the crown by casting it to the ground, rejecting the benefit from the ancestor's choice, banishes the evil for 343 years. The prequel could end with something like:

At last he held the crown, the weight of centuries of evil felt strangely light in his hands. He made his choice.

With such an ambiguous ending, the first story could be actual history (as revealed by the dream) or a future that might have been. (Incidentally, a third novel (e.g., An Heir's Choice: The Hard Path) could present the alternative future in which the evil was ended rather than banished.)

Even with the title hint, it might be difficult to write such stories. However, unlike the "it was all a (bad) dream" cliche, the detail and attractiveness of the story would make it a very powerful, real temptation for the father and less of a cheat to the reader.

Another possibility would be that his father is not his father but rather, e.g., his uncle. In the prequel the father's brother could witness the father's death and swap identities ("my brother gave his life for me and for all the Land of Crestern"). The first story might present hints that his father is not his biological father, but this fact need never be revealed in the first story. (A third story might reveal this fact.) A heavy emphasis on paternal and fraternal love in the first story might strengthen the end of the prequel.

Resurrection is a third possibility. The father might die with the full assumption that he is leaving his son an orphan, but he might be brought back at great cost (which might also be why this fact is never mentioned in the first story but it might be hinted by the father saying things like "I owe her my life and more", "life is not the highest good", "one cannot always see the beginning or the end from the middle").

Retcons are difficult to write well. Even with hints and ambiguities in the first story, the reveal in the prequel can easily seem like a cheat or just an unnecessary confusion to some readers. Making the first story clearly matter (using the attractiveness and reality of the dream to emphasize the temptation, using the brother/uncle's love and dedication as an adoptive father in the first story to emphasize the fraternal love in the prequel, or using real death (with fear, pain, and grief) and the price others were willing to pay to bring him back to avoid a perception of insignificant death) is one way to reduce audience disappointment.

Of course, none of these actually solve the problem of perceived risk since the readers of the first story will assume that the father survived. As the other answers state, the general outcome of success and survival need not be the primarily source of dramatic tension (happy endings are commonly expected). Death and outward failure are not the worst fates possible. In high fantasy, personal honor is likely to be highly valued ("Gawain and the Green Knight" has Gawain survive but at the cost of dishonor even if he was judged more honorable than other knights; or quoting Aral Vorkosigan's statement in A Civil Campaign (Chapter 15), "There is no more hollow feeling than to stand with your honor shattered at your feet while soaring public reputation wraps you in rewards. That's soul-destroying. The other way around is merely very, very irritating.").

How the character survives and succeeds (what cost, what heroic choice or determination, what clever device, what unexpected intervention, what flaw in the villain, etc.) can easily be more significant than the outcome.

In addition, when one is drawn into a story, facts and assumptions can be forgotten in the immediacy of the action as one's perception is guided more by feeling than by rational consideration.

Finally, dramatic tension is not the only reason people continue reading a story. For example, satisfaction in the felt truth of a story need not depend on the unexpected (people do re-read stories).

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