Winter Sunlight

Writing wilderness survival/action stories

Heh, so, neenaroo on Tumblr asked me if I have any tips for writing wilderness survival stories, and I completely overran the ask box and basically wrote a NOVEL about it (apparently I do!).

This is also posted on Tumblr.

I feel a little weird giving advice because I'm not really an expert on any part of this, including the writing part; I'm just a person who really loves stranding characters in the wilderness and having horrible things happen to them. :D On the other hand, I've written quite a few of these by now, so I guess I've sort of got a system.

Stories which are referenced below:
Running on Empty (SGA) (website link)
The Killing Frost (SGA) (website link)
Survivor (White Collar)
Black Water Rising (MCU)
Wing and a Prayer (MCU)


First of all, I really love wilderness survival stories and action stuff, so I read a lot of it. How-to articles, fiction, and real-life survival stories are all really useful in giving you a lot of material to draw upon. You never know when a random detail from a book you read will end up being the perfect detail for a story you're writing.

The very best all-around survival research guide I own (that I use in almost everything of this sort that I write) is the U.S. Army Survival Handbook. This is the book I quoted from in Running on Empty. You don't need to buy any books, though, if you don't want to. You can just use the Internet. Googling "how to find water in the desert" or "wilderness navigation" or whatever else you want to know about will get you lots of useful info.

You also want to think about what your character would plausibly know, and what they wouldn't. A lot of the characters I write are military or otherwise skilled in navigation and survival. This obviously means doing quite a bit of research in order to make them behave plausibly. In Survivor, on the other hand, Elizabeth Burke from White Collar is stranded in the wilderness, and she's an urban housewife with no survival skills at all. Actually, one of the more challenging parts of THAT story was the fact that she actually knew a lot less about it than I did (... mostly because of writing stories like this) so I had to remember to have her doing things like having difficulty finding her way around in the woods, and basically not being a wilderness survival virtuoso.

So, paradoxically, sometimes writing a character who is very inexperienced can be hard, too, since you have to always keep in mind that they don't know how to do much. You might have to make things easier for them by giving them other advantages so they don't just drop dead immediately of heatstroke, snakebite, exposure, or whatever, as opposed to someone who is a wilderness survival badass and can survive almost anywhere with just a knife and some string. Your character's capabilities will partly determine what sort of advantages you have to give them in order to give them a reasonable shot at survival.

The choice of what to give your character at the beginning will obviously have a big effect on the outcome later. (Do they get stranded with a whole boatload of survival gear, or just the contents of their pockets?) If you realize as you write that your whole plot would be a heck of a lot easier if they had something they don't (a compass, a knife, something to carry water in) you can always go back and add it -- I do quite a bit of this -- or find a way to give it to them later on. I think perhaps the thing that causes me the most headaches when I'm writing survival stories is coming up with something plausible for them to carry water in, if they don't have a canteen to begin with. In Running on Empty I cheated by having Sheppard find a container in an old farmhouse he was rummaging around in. I do a lot of that kind of "cheating", as I'll get to a bit later.

Something that might not be obvious at first (I know it took me a long time to start thinking analytically about this - actually, some aspects of this I didn't notice I was doing 'til writing this post) is that it's very important to think about pacing and tension in a story like this. It's really easy to end up with a survival story that feels repetitive, with tension that doesn't really go anywhere, because the character's situation is basically pretty simple, there aren't a lot of other people to interact with, and the stakes at the START of the story are usually something like "TRY NOT TO DIE", which is about as high as stakes can get, so how do you keep raising them as the story goes along?

(Side note on dramatic pacing: usually action stories start off pretty low-key, and then get increasingly more tense and action-filled and dangerous as they go along, ending up in the most tense and action-filled place of all. That's how you hold a reader's interest, with that constantly escalating spiral of tension. So if you start out with "OH GOD WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE" it's difficult to keep raising the level of tension all the way to the end. But survival stories are like that by nature, so what do you do?)

Well, ha, here's how I do it.

In most of my stories, the characters' physical condition deteriorates throughout the story, while the amount of difficulty they have obtaining whatever they need to survive increases.

At the start, they may be lost and scared and hunted, but they're (usually) healthy, well fed, and probably have some gear with them. As the story goes along, they start racking up physical damage (they get shot, they break bones, their injuries get infected), and they also start losing things they started out with (they run out of ammo, they eat the last of their food, etc).

It is REALLY useful at ramping up the tension to do some kind of equipment inventory at the beginning (it's logical for the characters to do this themselves anyway, since they want to know what they have to work with). As they run low on stuff, and then run out of it, the level of tension cranks tighter and tighter. For example, if they have three granola bars at the start of the story, you can gracefully work in a mention of how much they have left (and make the reader anxious about their continued survival) if the character makes themselves wait until they're desperately hungry to eat the first one, because now they only have two left! Or they might break one in half and eat a piece of it, forcing themselves to save the rest...

And take every opportunity to deprive them of stuff, preferably one or two pieces at a time. Maybe they get caught in a swamp and lose their boots, or they have to use up all their rope making a trap. If there's ammo involved, it's tenser if they use it over the course of a few different firefights, and start carefully hoarding their bullets towards the end, than if they use it all at once in one big firefight at the beginning. Remember, it's all about making the reader breathless with anticipation over how they're going to get out of this. As their situation gets subtly worse, the reader's anxiety gets ratcheted up.

The other thing that's tricky, as mentioned above, is not getting repetitive, because so much of what happens to them in the story is going to be basically the same due to their basic needs and enemies not really changing a whole lot over the course of the story. (What, we have to find water AGAIN?!) In some of my stories, I will actually make a list beforehand of all the things that could plausibly happen to them, and make sure to use each item on the list ONLY ONCE. Especially something really dramatic like a flood or a forest fire (or the whole hillside getting blown up in Wing and a Prayer) -- that's the sort of thing that is so memorable you don't want to do it twice. But you also want to be a bit careful at repeating simpler activities, because you can easily end up with a lot of very similar scenes of obtaining food, water, etc. that get dull and repetitive over time. You could show the character hunting a deer with their improvised weapons in a lot of detail the first time, but you wouldn't want to have another detailed deer-hunting scene. (Unless you do another tension-ramping thing with it: the first time they miss totally, then a little later they stalk another deer and almost kill it, and the third time they're totally out of food and getting desperate and they lose their last arrow and then they try to jump on the deer and break its neck ...)

You get the idea. :D A lot of times I'll have no choice but to use a similar scenario multiple times, so I'll try to stage it differently so it's not the same. One relatively easy and effective way of doing this is to make both the situation and the outcome worse on each iteration. Like, the first time the characters might get ambushed by one or two guys, and beat them easily. The second time, they are stalked by a larger group of more experienced goons, and this time they barely get away and somebody gets hurt in the fight. The third time, they are PROBABLY going to die because they're down to their last 3 bullets, but the fight is interrupted when it's just gotten started by a sudden flash flood (which you would of course have set up earlier by ominous oncoming rain clouds). Or maybe, for "goons", substitute "large predators" if they're only up against normal wilderness hazards. That kind of thing.

Changing up the characters' environment and the weather are two other ways of keeping things fresh. For example, your characters can start out on the beach and move into the woods and then into the mountains -- this gives you new environments for them to explore, new sources of food and water, and new challenges. Rainstorms and other kinds of severe weather are quite useful as well. :D

The simpler their situation is and the fewer advantages they have, the harder it is to keep things from becoming stale. Black Water Rising, while not a wilderness survival story as such, is an EXCELLENT example of a story where I used the "make a list of all possible things that could happen" technique for plotting, because I had trapped the characters in an empty, abandoned, and sealed underground complex with rising water levels and no advantages except what they had brought with them. I could see right off that I was going to end up with a lot of very similar scenes of characters wandering into dead-end passageways, facing similar hazards (almost drowning) or trying similar methods of escape (chipping through walls, climbing things). So I made two lists: one list of bad things that could possibly happen to them (someone almost drowns, they lose their flashlights, someone falls out of touch with the others, they start getting hypothermic, etc) and another list of useful things or possible escape routes they might find, and then merged the two and figured out how to spread it all out so no one gets into the same kind of scrape twice in a row and I won't be repeating similar "discovering a possible escape route" scenes.

This brings up the OTHER useful way of breaking up repetition and raising tension: as well as making things worse for them, and taking things away, I'll also come up with ways of giving the characters new advantages as they go along. It's what I was talking about earlier with giving Sheppard a canteen from the abandoned cabin, since he didn't have one to begin with. In Wing and a Prayer, the characters stumble upon an enemy base and now they can (potentially) get food and water and medicine, if they can steal it without getting caught. In Running on Empty, I had the characters raid abandoned villages a time or two, and then they started making gunpowder, and eventually they end up capturing an enemy spaceship. Why not just leave them with the same things they started with? Well, it opens up new avenues of story to give them new things ... and also, they have to win SOMEHOW. If you make their situation too desperate and then don't give them some relief occasionally, that can be as much of a slog as if you make it too easy.

But you want them to earn things. If you are going to give them a present (like a cabin in the woods, or a crashed alien spaceship they can get tech from) you should either have them earn it somehow (they cleverly navigate through the wilderness, and decide to follow a river because usually people build along waterways, and then they find a cabin!) or the "gift" actually raises a whole bunch of new problems, like the Hydra base that Sam and Bucky found in Wing and a Prayer -- they have a source of weapons and food and medicine, but they also have to sneak or fight their way through it in order to get any of that stuff.

Often if you find yourself stuck in the story, you need to throw a curve ball at the characters, which can either be some new terrible thing (flash flood!), or, frequently and perhaps a bit paradoxically, a new development to make things easier for them for a little while. If they've been slogging through the wilderness forever, having them meet a fellow traveller or find a cabin or a vehicle gives you a bunch of new scenes to write, as they figure out how to take advantage of New!Thing and deal with whatever challenges have come along with it. If it really comes out of nowhere, you can always go back and add a bit of foreshadowing earlier in the story to imply that such a thing might be around here somewhere. (Maybe they find some cigarette butts and realize there is someone else in the woods with them, so now they have to figure out whether this person is more likely to be helpful or dangerous, and whether they should look for them or hide from them ...)

I will straight-up admit that a lot of the new advantages I give my characters are simply because I had no idea what to do next -- I either found myself facing a whole lot of boring and repetitive nothing (which was the case in Wing and a Prayer; HELL NO I don't want to write a week-long trek through the wilderness to civilization, with Hydra showing up occasionally to shoot at them) or I realize I've written them into a situation that they couldn't possibly survive without help (which is why the cavalry shows up halfway through The Killing Frost rather than at the end, and the focus of the story switches from flat-out survival to search & rescue for their missing team members, because EVERYONE IS FREEZING TO DEATH and soon will all be dead if something doesn't change).

I think this might be the least intuitive aspect of writing wilderness survival stuff, and the hardest to learn how to do well -- half the trick to it is properly spacing out the major developments and incidents so you don't have a bunch of stuff clustering at the beginning and save some of your big stuff for later on (which is where making a list comes so much in handy), and the other half of the trick is cleverly giving them stuff and taking stuff away without having it feel contrived or ridiculous, so it ends up being more compelling than simply a bunch of people tramping through the wilderness slowly starving to death.

If you look analytically at wilderness survival stories (the fictional kind; real life does not have the decency to be this well organized) you'll start noticing how much of the plotting actually involves giving the characters new stuff to take advantage of, or otherwise changing the status quo of the story as soon as it's established. Robinson Crusoe is sort of the ur-example of this, because he doesn't just spend the whole book on an island with literally nothing -- he has a whole shipwreck to raid, so half the time he's finding new stuff from the shipwreck, and then when that gets stale, some people turn up and he gets to interact with them.

You don't absolutely have to do this. The book The Valley of Horses (one of the semi-infamous Clan of the Cave Bear series, and far and away my favorite of the series when I was a kid), at least the first half of it, involves the heroine all alone in the wilderness, making all the stuff she needs to survive. (She does run into another person halfway through, and the rest of the book is about getting to know each other.) But the first half is just Woman vs. Wilderness. Even there, though, the writer throws occasional curveballs at her to keep things interesting, such as a flood or an orphaned wolf cub she adopts.

So, a summary, in bullet points:
  • Research
  • Think about what your character plausibly knows and would have with them
  • Do some kind of equipment inventory near the beginning so both the reader and your characters know what they have with them
  • Keep making things slowly but steadily worse to increase tension (they lose stuff, they get hurt, more enemies arrive, the weather worsens, etc)
  • Space out important events (make a list of possibilities if necessary) and save some of the worst stuff for last
  • Throw curve balls at the characters every time a status quo starts to be established (rainstorm! lion! rocks fall, everyone dies!)
  • Give them new stuff or new people whenever things start getting repetitive and/or you accidentally write them into a "but they could not possibly survive this" corner, but make them earn it and/or give it a major downside to make things more interesting.


And remember rules are made to be broken, and not all stories will have or need all of the above. :D

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Re: wilderness survival stuff
Thank you! Very helpful, as usual.

I do use Scrivener myself for writing -- I started using it for this latest BigBang challenge and it was extremely useful. The functionality I used the most is where you can move the scenes around (because each scene is it's own file) and other organizational stuff like that. But it doesn't have a screen where you can see the entire plot (i.e. a wall with post-it notes), it's broken up into chapters, and that's why I was wondering. I do recommend you try Scrivener if you are interested, it's good, but it doesn't do 100% of stuff I want.

so it wasn't all Peggy all the time

Um, hey, it should be all Peggy all the time as far as I'm concerned! :P