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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Fischer

Obstacles, tension, and raising the stakes in your novel

Every January, my husband and I have a Back to the Future marathon. Even though we've seen the franchise a billion times, we always return to it and watch, riveted as we wait to see whether Marty McFly will really make it back home to 1985 from good ol' 1955.

Movies are a fantastic way to learn the craft of story and tension and dialogue. And this week, I'm going to break down exactly why we are the edge of our seats during the climax of Back to the Future, and show you how you can use some of the same tactics to heighten the tension and stakes in your own novel. So climb into thorean, set your time circuits on, check that flux capacitor, and buckle up.

For anyone who hasn't seen Back to the Future, the premise is this: Marty McFly is a highschooler in Hill Valley, CA, and an aspiring musician. He's friends with eccentric scientist, Doc Brown, who builds a time machine out of a DeLorean car. On the night Marty and Doc test the time machine, Marty accidentally gets sent back to 1955. Back in time, he accidently runs into his parents and alters the course of their relationship, thereby accidentally jeopardizing his own existence. He enlists 1955-Doc to help him get back to the future, but must first get his own parents to fall in love.

Tip #1 for crafting tension: Obstacles

So let's go back to story basics first. What does our protagonist (Marty) want? Simple...he wants to go back to 1985. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

And what stands in his way externally (plot-wise)? Well, quite a lot it seems: The DeLorean needs a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricty to send him through time. Forgetting to bring extra plutonium on his accidental travels back in time, they have no way to generate the power they need to return him home. With one exception: A bolt of lightning. Luckily, with Marty's historical knowledge on their side, they know exactly when and where a bolt will strike (Hill Valley's clock tower at 10:04 pm the upcoming Saturday night).

So, in order to send him back, they have to:

✅ Figure out a way to run a wire from the top of the clocktower, down across the street on which Marty will be driving the DeLorean. (Thereby harnessing the lightning.)

✅ Craft a wired hook that will direct the electrical current from the lightning into the flux capacitor.

✅ Have Marty drive the DeLorean, connect the car wire-hook with the street wire at exactly 88mph, precisely at 10:04pm as the bolt of lightning strikes the clocktower.

In other words: There's a lot of very specific things that must happen at precisely the right time, otherwise they will fail. (Obstacles galore!)

But wait, there's more! As Marty is dealing with the simple (though, not easy) desire of getting back to 1985, his 1955-teenage Mom, Lorraine, winds up being drawn to him (Florence Nightingale effect) and won't spare a single glance at Marty's Dad, George.

And guess what...if they don't fall in love, Marty will cease to exist. Yikes--talk about raising the stakes, right?

Turns out, the moment his parents fell in love can be traced back to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, where they kiss for the first time (an excellent example of Act 1 setup, by the way). The dance is on the very same night as the thunderstorm and lightning strike.

So, in other words, Marty has one shot to get them to kiss on that dancefloor right before he has to get the heck out of the dance and into the DeLorean, drive it to the starting place and harness that lightning.

Let's look at Marty's obstacles for getting his parents together:

✅ Convince his (very cowardly) Dad to go to the dance

✅ Deflect Lorraine's attention and ward off her advances

✅ Take Lorraine to the dance and invent a scenario that gets her very angry with him, so that George can step in and rescue his damsel in distress.

✅ Get them to dance and make sure they kiss.

He has crafted a plan that seems simple enough, but which can easily go awry in a myriad of ways. And whatever might go wrong, does.

The lesson here is that the more obstacles you put in your character's path, the more they're going to have to problem-solve and test themselves and their mettle.

Tip #2 for crafting tension: Nothing goes as planned

Here's a list of everything that goes wrong the night of the thunderstorm:

  • Lorraine doubles down on her affections toward Marty, which means she doesn't get angry with him, which means there's nothing to rescue her from

  • The bully of the movie, Biff, who is an antagonist even for the 1985 McFly family interrupts Marty & Lorraine and they throw Marty into the locked trunk of a car

  • The keys to the trunk/car, which belongs to the musicians playing on stage at the dance, are locked inside with Marty

  • The musicians try to pick the lock with a screwdriver and the lead guitarist slices his hand, announcing that the dance is over since he can no longer play.

"Wait, you don't understand. If you don't play there's no music. If there's no music they don't dance. If they don't dance they don't kiss and fall in love and I'm history."
  • Marty must now get on stage to play, which will delay him from getting to the DeLorean.

  • Meanwhile, while Biff molests Lorraine in the car, George comes running, thinking he's going to find Marty. He flings open the door and stops, dead terrified of his bully. Lorraine pleads for help, but we don't know if cowardly George is going to stand up to Biff.

  • When he finally does, knocking Biff unconscious, he walks Lorraine into the dance, but is still too nervous to kiss her. Some other jerk tells George to "scram" and takes Lorraine away from George. Lorraine keeps calling for George to help, but he turns away.

  • Meanwhile, on stage, Marty is fading, his existence slipping further and further away as George does not stand up to bully #2.

  • Finally George musters his courage--and there's this wonderful cinematic moment in which they kiss for the first time and Marty is suddenly solid and we are certain of his existence. Hooray. Problem #1 has been solved, but now he has to get home.

  • As the storm kicks up, Marty already running late thanks to his time at the dance getting thwarted by a million things, an early, small stroke of lightning takes out a tree and uncouples the cable leading from the top of the clocktower down to the street. Doc now must climb quickly to the top and hook it back together.

  • It's high, and as he's trying to accomplish his task, the clock begins to strike, starling him so he's out of the safety of the belltower and out on the front of the building.

  • As he reaches, the mortar ledge he's walking on gives way. He's now dangling from the clock, the cable hooked to his pant leg, holding on by a thread (literally). He has to grab the dangling cable, hoist himself back up and hook the lines together.

  • Meanwhile the clock is ticking ever-closer to that 10:04 mark.

  • Finally he gets up, feels steady enough to couple the cords, but the tree that fell earlier has snagged on the wire and the two ends won't meet. They are a few inches shy of meeting. Marty cannot help because he's gone to the Starting Point.

  • Doc muscles the two ends together, and in doing so breaks another coupling down on the street below.

  • Meanwhile, Marty's alarm clock in the DeLorean, goes off, telling him it's time to start his drive. But the car will not start.

  • Finally it does, and Marty starts his drive. Jumping back to Doc, we see him make a zipline of sorts and he slides down to the street where he must disentangle the cord from a tree branch in order to make that final wire connection.

So, holy moly, that's a lot of unforeseen problems that come up. Even Doc's calculations couldn't predict things like bully behavior and cowardly fathers and fallen trees and broken mortar.

The lesson here is, the more problems you throw at your character, the more tension you create. Audiences love to watch to see whether a hero will succeed or fail on their quest.

Tip #3 for creating tension: A ticking clock

Phew! If you've stuck with me this long, you probably deserve a medal.

One of the simplest ways to create tension in your novel is to devise some kind of ticking clock. In Back to the Future they have a literal ticking clock--a deadline--that they must get all of this done by. And we are so aware of it as we watch the enormous clock tick forward, minute-by-minute.

If anything goes wrong, that 10:04 lightning strike is his ONE chance to get home. That's it, because, as Doc stated earlier, they never know when or where one will strike. There's a lot riding on this deadline. And it's down to seconds, for Marty. Luckily, they succeed, but only by a hair.

So in your manuscript, what is a deadline your character must face? How might it push them harder, to work faster, to make them uncomfortable and put pressure on them?

A quick note about tension: some people mistake action for tension--they think books need bad guys and chase scenes and explosions in order for it to be more exciting. But tension is so much simpler. It's a series of desires and obstacles. That's it. Thwart your character, give them obstacles, force them into the uncomfortable. Strip away the things that matter to them, force them to problem solve, to use their gifts and strengths to overcome their weaknesses. Don't be afraid to make it messy, make it hard.

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