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I'm writing a novel and in the opening chapter, one of the main characters finds herself traveling by foot through a very severe sandstorm. I used the character's feelings of choking/suffocating to inspire urgency and tension in the chapter. I made the character think she is going to die if she doesn't escape the sandstorm which eventually causes her to give up on the task at hand and change directions. I later found out that sandstorms don't really literally choke people. Apparently you can breath in a sandstorm even without a face covering. I've never been outside in a sandstorm myself so I don't know from personal experience what its like.

But, since it's (apparently) not likely you will suffocate in a sandstorm, could I still use the characters feeling of choking to inspire urgency? She is obviously panicked, loses sense of direction among other things that go wrong so it wouldn't be out of character for her to think she's dying even if she isn't. With that being said, is it a cheap way to create tension and urgency from something that isn't really a hazard, only seems like it is?

This novel is written in 3rd person if that helps, so the narrator knows the MC is not currently at risk of losing her life.

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  • Karl May never was to America, and made up like 95% of what occurs in "Winnetou", including superhuman tracking abilities, impossible gunnery, completely made up culture, made up behaviors of wildlife and environments, generally almost everything in the books is wrong, fake and made up. Didn't stop the books from being wildly popular and a lot became canon of Wild West movies and books, despite being totally unrealistic or plain wrong. – SF. Nov 13 '20 at 13:53
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I've never been in a sandstorm either, so I don't know exactly how it feels or what all the risks of being stuck in one are, but people do generally seem to want to avoid them. Do a bit more research and see what else you find out about sandstorms. That said, you do have some options here that come to mind off the top of my head:

Option 1: The risk of choking may not be real, but for whatever reason your character thinks it is, or she thinks there is some risk of death, anyway, even if not by choking. Maybe she's heard scary things about sandstorms, or she is just very frightened by it. I would imagine it would be very disorienting, being unable to see where she is going with sand blowing around her face and into her eyes etc., so even if the danger is not real, as long as your character feels threatened, this can be used to create a sense of tension and urgency.

Option 2: There is some real risk of harm or death, even if it isn't choking. Maybe you find in your research that there are some other ways the sandstorm harms a person out in it, and you can use that. If not, you can add other threats. Maybe the terrain is treacherous and the fact the storm hinders visibility means your character could fall in ravine and break her leg (or her neck!), or maybe there is a risk she will lose her way due to the storm and wander around lost until she dies (middle of a desert with no landmarks if you end up somewhere unexpected?). Maybe there are sandstorm dwelling monsters that follow the storm and eat helpless folks caught inside it... If your character is familiar with the threats the storm brings, any of these things could make her concerned enough to attempt to avoid the risk.

I think I've answered your highlighted question, but to spell it out: Anything that believably threatens your character's well-being can create tension or urgency, even if the "threat" is more emotional than physical (regardless of whether the character thinks there is a phsyical threat or not!). There can be great tension and urgency in books where there is never any threat of physical harm of any of the characters. These stories rely on other things, such as emotional distress or changes in situation, to create tension.

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While I've never been in a proper sandstorm, I have been on a beach during high winds produced by a nearby Hurricane (it had missed us and gone north, but the winds were still quite strong.). The wind was nothing that could be dangerous to large objects, but it did wip up the sand on the beach surface, which had a mild stinging feeling against exposed skin. In a sand storm where it's impossible to see, there is the risk of the sand causing skin damage (In extreme cases, sand storms can strip meat from bone, though I don't think this is common) and can cause respritory issues from inhailing dust, disease from inhailing virus spores that were on the ground, and in long term exposure, could result in sand getting in the lungs, which is incurable, and could cause cancer or even asphixiation. It can also cause eye damage and even blindness if not protected against.

But the stinging of sand particles moving at wind speeds can hurt even at low speeds and would definately at a level that one could not see due to lowered visibility (and goggles are restricting in periphial vision, which puts humans on edge (I did a lot of swimming and wore glasses so I purchased perscription goggles so I could see reliably and protect my eyes... They were cooler looking than glasses, but they were not comfortable and they didn't have a periphial view, even if my glasses periphials were lousy by comparison.

While you can breath in a sandstorm, it's much more difficult and while you won't suffocate, difficult breathing does cause a panic in humans and most other animals.

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