Heighten Tension by Creating Mirror Characters

Watch any horror movie (even bad ones) and you’ll always notice a common element. Someone always dies.

Think about it. What if a horror movie never showed anyone dying? That never happens for two reasons. First, in horror movies, audiences expect to see people dying. Second, and more importantly, the death of a character shows the danger the hero faces.

Think of the absolute worst that could happen to your hero and that’s what audiences need to see. When a serial killer captures and kills someone, that lets us know the power of the villain and the possible fate of the hero if he or she loses.

So when writing a story, think of the worst that could happen to your hero and make sure it happens to another character. In “The Color Purple,” the hero is a black woman trapped in a joyless life. So one of the characters is a strong woman who mouths off to a white woman and then punches the white woman’s husband in the face.

Because of her actions, the police beat her up and lock her in prison for eight years. By the time she’s released, she’s a broken woman who’s meek and subservient to the white woman she previously mouthed off to. Seeing this woman’s broken spirit is worse than death because it shows her constantly suffering everyday as a broken woman compared to the strong-willed woman she initially was.

In “The Shawshank Redemption,” a character gets out of prison but can’t handle freedom so he commits suicide. Later, the hero escapes from prison but leaves clues to his friend for how to find him. At first, his friend works in the same meaningless job as the earlier character who committed suicide.

The other character’s suicide shows us the worst that could happen to the hero’s friend. If he doesn’t cling to hope and search for a better life, he risks giving up on life and killing himself too.

So when writing your story, think of the worst that could happen. It may be death, but it’s likely something far more terrifying to your hero. Once you know the worst that could happen, make it happen to someone else. When we know the worst that could happen, we’ll worry that the hero (or another main character) may suffer as well.

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