Employ lock-in to ensure you have a story

To pump up the suspense in your story – nay, to even have a story – you will want to ensure your character experiences a “lock in.” A lock-in occurs when a character cannot escape a situation because the stakes are high and doing nothing carries such dire consequences that trying to resolve the problem is the best option.

Suppose, for example, that our protagonist is an astronaut whose Earth-orbiting spacecraft suffers such serious damage that it is losing power. There is no escape from this situation, as she cannot simply leave the spacecraft. Doing nothing means she soon will freeze to death in space as there soon will be no heat. She must attempt to solve her problem, even though doing so will be dangerous and potentially leave her dead. So she dons a spacesuit and makes an EVA – something she has only done in training on Earth – to rig a solar panel that will allow the spacecraft to have power until a rescue can be mounted.

If there is no lock-in, you may have no story at all, just a series of anecdotes. Suppose in the above example that our astronaut’s spacecraft suffers damage that only strands her in space. So long as she has food, water and power, no big deal. She just needs to wait it out until a rescue arrives. The stakes simply aren’t high enough for our astronaut, and there’s no compelling reason for her to do anything to resolve her problem (Though that can be fixed by changing the lock-in – if she were orbiting a distant planet, in which a rescue at best is several years away and her fellow shipmates died when the damage occurred, she must do something or risks going mad from being alone for potentially a decade.).

A lock-in need not be a matter of life and death, of course. But the character’s quality of life must in some way be deeply threatened that action must be taken toward resolving the problem.