What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene?

I used to play a lot of poker when I was younger. Smoked my first cigar in my buddy Brad’s garage during the final round of a $20 game of Texas hold ‘em. We usually bought our seats at the table for 10 bucks, but on this night, the buy-in was 20 and I was lucky enough to be one of the last three players left.

I was sitting on a pair of jacks. There was already a jack and two 4’s on the board, so with a full house—or, as a betting man might say, “jacks full of 4’s”—I felt confident enough to make the call. Winning the hand meant a minimum payout of $100—which is quite a lottery for a high school kid. Losing meant I’d go home empty handed.

With a crack of reluctance in my voice, I pushed every chip I had left into the center of the table and made my declaration.

“I’m all in.”

If there’s any advice I can offer you in writing tension into your stories, and in getting your DeepKids to write tension into theirs, it’s this:

Raise the stakes.

Forgive me if I’m oversimplifying here, but good stories are about characters who want something and must overcome conflict to get it. By raising the stakes, we make our character’s chances of getting that something seem less likely.

This can be done several ways:

  • Dialogue
  • Pacing
  • Sentence structure
  • Line breaks
  • Ticking clocks
  • Beating hearts
  • Different colored wires attached to a bomb
  • Cars on the edges of cliffs
  • Raptors in kitchens chasing kids (à la Jurassic Park)

Which brings me to my next point:

A good conversation starter to get your DeepKids thinking about tension is movies. One of my favorites is the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter—though you might choose a more lighthearted example. Showing a tense movie clip paired with a copy of the script or book works well.

What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene? What’s your favorite literary device to use when adding tension? Do you have any good “raised stakes” stories? 

(For those of you wondering, I lost the poker game. Brad hit running aces and beat me aces full.)


One thought on “What’s your favorite white-knuckle movie scene?

  1. This’ll make for a long comment, but here’s the Jurassic Park scene as it appears in the script:



    The raptor stares down at the door handle, cocking its head
    curiously. It SNARLS and bumps the door handle with its head, but that
    doesn’t do anything.

    It reaches out, toward the handle, with one clawed hand.


    Tim and Lex stare in shock as the door handle starts to turn.

    The door opens. The first raptor stands in the doorway, draws
    itself up to its full height, and looks around the kitchen.

    Now, a second raptor joins it in the doorway. They move into
    the room, brushing against each other. The first raptor SNAPS as the
    second, as if to say “keep your distance.”

    Now the raptors split, taking two different aisles. Tim and Lex
    crawl away, Tim awfully weak now, down a third aisle, around the other
    side of the counter from the raptors, moving in the opposite direction.

    As Tim and Lex pass the raptors, one of the raptor’s tails SMACK
    into some pots and pans, knocking them off the counter. They fall on
    the kids, who manage to keep quiet.

    The kids keep moving as one of the raptors dips down, looking
    through an open cabinet to inspect the racket.

    Tim and Lex reach the end of the aisle and round a corner – –
    but Timmy’s falling behind now, and he accidentally brushes against
    some hanging kitchen utensils.

    Both raptors turn. One jumps onto the counter, knocking more
    kitchen stuff to the floor. A ladle CLATTERS to a stop, and the
    strange metallic sounds confuse the raptors for a moment.

    But then they move, in Tim’s direction, SNIFFING, heading right
    for him.

    The raptor on the floor is just about to turn the corner to
    where Tim sits, exposed and exhausted, but both the raptors suddenly
    stop, hearing a CLICKING sound from the other end of the aisle.

    It’s Lex, TAPPING a spoon on the floor to distract them. The
    raptor on the counter jumps down and starts cautiously towards Lex’s
    noise, leaving Tim.

    Lex sees a steel cabinet behind her, its sliding door slid up
    and open. She crawls inside, silently.

    Tim sees the raptors make the turn towards Lex, SMASHING more
    stuff around with their tails. He turns and sees a walk-in freezer in
    the far wall, with a pin-locking handle.

    As Lex tries to pull the overhead door to the cabinet shut, one
    of the raptors rounds a corner and sees her reflection on a shiny
    cabinet front. Lex tries frantically to lower the cabinet door, but
    it’s stuck.

    Tim takes a few deep breathes, summons what little strength he
    has left – –

    – – and makes a break for the walk-in freezer. He’s limping,
    dragging himself, really moving like a wounded prey now, and – –

    – – the other raptor spots him. Both raptors go into a pre-
    attack crouch – –

    – – and they pounce, one towards each of the kids.

    Lex tugs on the cover, to the avail – – Tim’s raptor charges
    after him, just open floor space between them – –

    – – and Lex’s raptor THUDS into a shiny surface bearing hr
    reflection. It chased the wrong image. It sags to the floor,

    At the other end of the aisle, the real Lex SCREAMS as the other
    raptor bears down on Tim. Tim reaches the freezer, rips the door open,
    and falls inside. The floor is cold and slick and his feet go right
    out from under him. He sprawls across the floor, rolls out of the way
    – –

    – – and the raptor slips and falls into the freezer too, right
    past him.

    Tim drags himself to his feet and out of the freezer.

    The raptor makes one last lunge, right on Tim’s heels, its mouth
    wide open – –

    – – but Lex SLAMS the door shut just as Tim is clear. The
    raptor’s head is caught for a second, but it SNARLS, retreats, and
    Lex’s gets the door shut all the way.

    The raptor ROARS and SCREAMS inside. Lex jams the pin through
    the handle, locking it in.

    Now the other raptor staggers to is feet. Groggy, it SMASHES
    into stuff all over the kitchen. Lex throws her arms around Tim again
    for support and they take off.

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