Last week, we discussed why I personally love survival stories. We talked about how they can showcase the ingenuity of humanity, the way they can make us as readers think and problem solve, and how they reveal the strength of the human spirit.
Today, I’m going to speak a bit closer to the writers in the room. What is it about a survival story that makes it strong, that pulls on a reader’s heartstrings? How do we create a powerful survival story? Let’s look at four key points of a good survival story.
There needs to be high stakes conflict
Survival is high stakes, so the circumstances in which the character finds themselves needs to be high stakes as well. There have to be heart-pounding moments of terror, moments when it’s really uncertain if the character will survive. Mild circumstances or when there is any doubt in the reader’s mind about the possibility of the character not surviving will kill the tension of the story before it even begins. So no long, slow, tedious walks in the forest – at least not without encountering something more immediate. But we’ll get to that in point 3. 😉
Don’t be afraid to cut your character off and make them suffer. I know that sounds horrible, but without it, the story falls flat.
Conflict needs to be both internal and external
It’s really easy in a survival story to focus on the conflict of person vs. nature, since that’s the main focus of most survival stories. But that is a superficial story structure, and without something more, the reader won’t connect or care about the outcome of the story.
Just like in any story, we need something to make us care, and often that’s the internal conflict. We learn about the bits and pieces of the main character’s life, the things they’re struggling with, and how it relates to the life-or-death circumstances in which they find themselves.
We get to know the character, and then we can care about what happens to them.
There needs to be urgency
It’s so easy to write a slow survival story. I know. I’ve done it.
But that’s boring.
I know, it might be plausible to see a person slowly starving or something similar, but it doesn’t exactly drive the story forward. (refer back to point #1)
But, if you give the character a deadline of some sort – a life-threatening injury, danger to someone they love that is imminent – it adds a layer of tension to the story that will keep the reader of the edge of their seat, begging to know what happens next, begging to know if they’ll make it or fail/die.
It needs to be plausible
Finally, your survival story needs to be plausible. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve seen that are grounded on faulty premises…one that comes to mind is a post-apocalyptic EMP story in which the EMP killed most of the life on Earth. Right there, that is not realistic, as EMPs only affect electronic devices. Not the health of a creature.
So whatever circumstances your character finds themselves in, it needs to be something truthful, believable, and scientifically plausible, or you’ll lose your reader.
So now that you’ve heard what I consider to be the key elements to a good survival story, I’m interested to see what you think makes it. Are there other components you can think of? Other conflicts you like to see in these stories? Let me know in the comments or send me a tweet!
Happy writing, and see you next week for some of my favorite survival story recommendations!