Defying Plot Armor: How to Write Compelling High-Stakes Survivals

Have you ever been there, engrossed in a tense moment of a novel, only to find yourself raising eyebrows as the protagonist inexplicably survives impossible odds? Well, you’re not alone—this phenomenon termed “plot armor” is infamous for drawing ire from audiences. So how do you keep yourself from falling into this writing trap? 

This caution also raises more questions, such as whether plot armor is always a flawed practice and how you can craft well-written positive resolutions for tense situations. Let’s delve into how to have your characters escape a pinch in a realistic manner that leaves the audience enthralled rather than disgruntled!

What’s Plot Armor?

Plot armor, also known as a character shield, is a common storytelling trope. It’s found across all sorts of genres and mediums, though it commonly appears in action-packed media. 

It refers to a storyline in which characters, often the protagonists, find themselves in a situation threatening their life or safety with no way to be saved in sight. However, they manage to miraculously survive the situation.

In other words, these characters appear to be rather immune to the dire dangers and challenges they face because the narrative demands their survival. 

Plot armors may manifest in various ways, some of the common ways being the following.

Survival From Dangerous Situations

The character survives situations that realistically are lethal. For instance, they may come out unscathed from dangerous battles with slim odds of winning, life-threatening accidents, or encounters with powerful enemies.

Unrealistic Recovery

Despite suffering from serious injuries or illnesses, the character heals at a startlingly quick rate, defying the logical explanations set in the story lore. Other characters not deemed essential for the narrative may succumb to similar health defects without any explanation for the discrepancy.

Consistently Right Intuition

The character somehow always makes the right decisions that lead them to outsmart their enemies and avoid bad situations, with an uncanny consistency. It’s almost as if they have a sixth sense!

Convenient Interventions

When the character is in the most perilous moment, somehow they’re blessed with just the intervention they need right at the crucial time. For example, their reliable allies may emerge out of nowhere just in time and save them right when they’re almost slashed by an enemy.

Key Takeaway: Plot armor is a storytelling trope where characters, usually protagonists, miraculously survive dangerous situations, recover unrealistically quickly, always make the right decisions, or receive convenient interventions to ensure their survival.

Why Plot Armor Can Be Bad

“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” — Vladimir Nabokov

So what exactly makes the plot armors so grating to the audience? It’s essential to gain an understanding of the negatives of plot armor so that you know what to avoid in the high-tension situation you pen.

Here are the biggest potential flaws of incorporating plot armor.

Lack of Realism

We read and write to escape reality. But even so, there must be a semblance of logic to form a consistent reality in your narrative.  If your character defies the logic set in your storytelling, it can break the readers’ immersion and suspension of disbelief. This makes your story less compelling and inconsistent for the sake of plot convenience.

Reduced Tension

If the character always finds their way out of odds with minimal consequences, then can there truly be tension? High odds and uncertainty leave readers at the edge of their seats—predictability doesn’t.

Diminished Character Growth

Just as we grow and develop from facing adversity from our actions and surroundings, so do our characters. Plot armor can hinder crucial character development as characters prevail unscathed from the consequences of decisions and events unfolding, leading to less compelling and relatable characters.

Dimmed Emotional Impact

Death or significant consequences for characters leave a profound emotional impact on the audience, making them feel more invested in the story. Plot armor reduces the stakes and emotional engagement.

Key Takeaway: Plot armor is frustrating for audiences because it lacks realism, reduces tension, hinders character growth, and diminishes emotional impact in storytelling.

Is Plot Armor Always Bad?

With that said, is plot armor always an unforgivable flaw? Definitely not!

Plot armor can be necessary to protect central and beloved characters. Killing off a critical character too early or abruptly can disrupt the narrative and disappoint the audience. 

In fact, in genres like superhero comics or high fantasy where heroes face extraordinary challenges, some level of plot armor is a natural expectation. After all, these genres often explore themes of heroism, resilience, and triumph against overwhelming odds.

In conclusion, use plot armor to propel the plot if you must… but don’t overdo it!

Tips to Avoid Poor Plot Armor

Now onto the tips that helped me write better pinchy situations that truly serve the story well!

Establish Your World’s Logic

It’s vital to set and stick to clear rules for your story. Define what’s possible and what’s off-limits. And explain it in the story.

For example, if a character has a superpower that makes them particularly resistant to death, make sure to explain this well, along with any weaknesses or limits their abilities have. Don’t break these rules later just because it’s easier—you don’t want plot holes on top of a plot armor!

I like jotting down my story world’s rules in a document. This helps keep them fresh in my mind and spark creative solutions within these constraints while writing.

Foreshadow the Resolution

One big issue with plot armor is that it can feel contrived and sudden, which breaks the audience’s immersion. 

By dropping subtle hints about future developments, you can make the resolution feel more natural. When the character escapes peril, readers can look back at these hints and see how the outcome fits organically into the narrative.

For instance, I might hint around a plot device, making it look unimportant at first but subtly indicating it might be deeper than that. Later on, it turns out to become the key to saving the heroes at a critical moment. 

Be Creative

Avoid making it too easy for your character to escape trouble. Embrace complexity and twists.

Make the character grapple with challenges and actively seek solutions. Be inventive in how they defy the odds while adhering to the established rules.

I revel in having my characters explore problem-solving, confronting their vulnerabilities and flaws during dire circumstances. This approach makes the resolution feel satisfying and well-earned.

Consider Alternative Consequences

Instead of relying solely on death or injury as outcomes, explore other avenues for your characters to face adversity after a perilous situation.

Emotional and personal consequences can be compelling. For example, instead of killing off the protagonist during a near-death encounter, delve into their emotional trauma and newfound awareness of mortality.

These endless possibilities allow you to portray your characters in a realistic, vulnerable, and multifaceted light.

Subvert Expectations

Use instances of characters defying the odds as opportunities to subvert expectations!

For example, I’ve set up situations where a character consistently triumphs over daunting challenges, only to introduce a scenario where they unexpectedly falter, defying established expectations and delivering a captivating plot twist.

Kill Your Darlings

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” — Stephen King

It’s easy to get attached to our characters, isn’t it? I even get attached to my villains! However, don’t shy away from subjecting your central characters to significant challenges and consequences… even if it means their demise. 

Such moments can be really powerful and take the story to unexpected places. When important characters face serious consequences or even die, it makes the stakes in your story feel real. So if it serves the story direction well, take the plunge and let go of your characters.

Remember, your characters’ stories live on in your words, regardless of their fate.

Key Takeaway: To write better resolutions to high-tension situations, establish clear story rules, foreshadow events, embrace complexity, explore alternative consequences, subvert expectations, and be willing to challenge or even sacrifice important characters for a more compelling and realistic narrative.

Sum-Up

Plot armor isn’t always bad, but it should be used sparingly to protect central characters and maintain narrative consistency. Excessive plot armor can harm a story by reducing realism, tension, character growth, and emotional impact. 

To avoid these pitfalls, writers should establish clear rules, foreshadow resolutions, be creative, and consider alternative consequences, such as emotional trauma or personal growth, instead of solely relying on death or injury. Subverting expectations and being willing to subject central characters to challenges and consequences can enhance the overall narrative impact.

So, embrace creativity, experiment with different outcomes, and don’t be afraid to take risks. Your characters’ stories will resonate more deeply with your readers when you do. Happy writing!

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