Posts Tagged ‘dramatic tension’

Another summer, and another Riley Sager novel has released. Not surprisingly, they’re kind of best when they’re a once-a-year treat. Still, leading up to getting his latest novel, Survive the Night, I heard a lot of mixed reviews on this one. Some loved the novel, other thought it wasn’t as good as his previous novels. When I got the novel, I started as soon as I could, eager to see what my own opinion was.

Taking on the horror trope of driving with a serial killer this time around, Survive the Night follows Charlie, a college student who loses her best friend in the worst way imaginable. Wanting to get away from school and all the reminders, Charlie signs up to share a ride with someone heading to her hometown in Ohio (woo-hoo!). However, she starts to wonder if her driver might not be all he says he is. If he might be a notorious serial killer. And if she might be his next target.

I’m not going to lie, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed Sager’s previous works.

The opening third is quite good. There’s great setup for Charlie and her situation, as well as some great tension. When Charlie’s mental health is brought into the equation, it adds to the tension (though not in a negative way). And there’s a strong sense of unreality here. What’s real and what isn’t?

Plus there are the usual Riley Sager twists and reveals that we don’t see coming, and some of those are quite good. And the final fifty pages has some great scenes that kept me from putting the book down. Especially the second-to-last reveal.

However, the second and third halves really faltered. Some of the twists and reveals came too early or just felt silly, ruining the tension of the story and making me roll my eyes. One of the early reveals made me say out loud, “Really? Really? Way to ruin the mood!”

Other stuff just undid my suspension of disbelief, especially near the end. And in the early chapters, I felt like there were abrupt changes from past to present tense, which distracted me.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Survive the Night by Riley Sager a 3.1 out of 5. Not the best of his work by any means (that goes to Lock Every Door, and I hope the adaption of that book comes sooner rather than later). Still, it’s not terrible. Some of the choices Sager makes in the book that didn’t work for me might work for other readers. And he definitely kept the novel from becoming a cliched story given what trope the story is based on.

And it got me interested in checking out the movie Shadow of a Doubt, which is where Charlie’s name comes from. Can’t complain about that.

It just didn’t work for me as a novel. And while that’s not a bad thing, it is what I’m reporting.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ll surely have two more blog posts out by the end of this week. Hopefully you’re not sick of me crowding your inbox by then.

Until next time, pleasant nightmares and be careful when driving with strangers.


Again, a reminder: I’ll be celebrating my ten-year blogging anniversary next month. To celebrate, I’ll be doing an Ask Me Anything, or AMA, on my blog. And one lucky participant will win a prize for participating! Just submit your question to ramiungar@ramiungarthewriter.com by 11:59 PM on July 28th, 2021. Looking forward to reading yoru questions!

Your protagonist is faced with a terrible choice. Whatever choice they make, they’ll be gaining one great thing but losing something else that’s equally important to them. Which one do they choose? Why can’t they have both? And is that even a possibility?

Sound familiar? This is actually a pretty common trope in a lot of fiction, the “Two Big Life Choices” trope. And I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest fan of it, at least in theory. I see its use, but as the title of this post indicates, the trope has its limits.

Let’s quickly go over it with a hypothetical example, shall we? You’ve got a character, a protagonist who has a big life choice set ahead of them and they have to make a choice soon. Let’s say it’s a young man who is given the chance to be the leader of a powerful mafia clan. His parents, friends and the clan itself want him to take over the clan, and saying no could lead to consequences for him, his parents, the clan and many innocents. On the other hand, he has a girlfriend and child that the former doesn’t know about just because of all that drama, and he wants to stay with them. Problem is, if he accepts the leadership position, he’ll have to leave his family forever to keep them safe. Which will he choose?

This is the Two Big Life Choices trope. And you’ll find it in many different places throughout fiction. Most recently, I found it in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, and that inspired this post.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has a great example of this trope in its first few episodes.

But as I said, this trope does have its limits. To be specific, while in able hands the trope does create for some strong tension and storytelling while the protagonist goes back and forth between their choices, it will eventually lead to a choice being made. Otherwise, the audience will lose interest with the constant hemming and hawing.

In our hypothetical example, the protagonist could choose to join the mafia clan, destroying his relationship with his girlfriend and child, as well as hardening/numbing all of them to everything that happens from here on out, but allowing one of the most powerful mafia clans in the story’s world to survive under a strong leader. On the other hand, he could give up the mafia clan and run away with his family, leading to his happiness but the dissolution of the clan or it being passed to a leader who will hunt him down for leaving the clan in the lurch, which means they’ll be on the run for the rest of their lives.

You can see where my problem with this trope comes from.

Sometimes though–not every time, but sometimes–there’s a third path to take. This is when the protagonist actually decides to defy convention and take both options or neither one, forging an entirely new road. In the case of our hypothetical story, the protagonist could demand that since all the other options for clan leadership suck, he’ll take the job but only if he’s allowed to marry his girlfriend and raise his child with her under the clan’s protection. This could lead to all sorts of interesting conflicts as the protagonist deals with the strains of trying to be a husband and a father while at the same time dealing with the demands and politics of leading a powerful mafia clan. And for many audience members, this could be the most wished-for option, even when it doesn’t seem all that likely.

Conversely, the protagonist could decide “screw it” on both options and just run in the exact opposite direction, but I’ve never seen that option employed and I have doubts about the quality of the story if it is used. Or the quality of the character.

The managa Nisekoi uses this trope very well, especially in the final arc.

Now, despite its limitations and while I’m not exactly a big fan of this trope in theory (which might limit how much I use it in my own fiction), I do admit that when done right in practice, it is amazing. One story that uses this trope extremely well is the manga Nisekoi, where the “Big Life Choice” is the protagonist trying to decide between two girls he has feelings for in the final chapters of the story. I freaking loved that manga, and looked forward to every single one of its twenty-five volumes. Another great example is the above-mentioned The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, where this trope is a driving force through the first couple of episodes of the first season. And as we can see from the show’s critical reception, people (and this half-human demon lord) love the show and can’t wait for Season 2.

So yes, while this trope does have some limits, it can make for some fun storytelling. The thing to keep in mind while using it is, beyond an interesting set of choices for both character and audiences, keeping the drama and tension high while at the same time keeping it from being melodramatic, as well as figuring out how best to handle the drama that ensues once the choice has been made.

If you can do that, you might just have the makings of a very engaging story. One that can last quite a long time, and will have fans for years afterwards.

What are some good examples of the Two Big Life Choices trope?

Do you use the trope in your own work? What tips do you have for using it?