What the Mandalorian Teaches Us About Creating Tension

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Okay, right off the bat: WARNING. THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE SECOND SEASON OF THE MANDALORIAN, INCLUDING THE FINALE. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

All righty, that’s over with. First of all, can we scream about this episode together in the comments? It wasn’t perfect (no story is, obviously), but DARN IT ALL it was still awesome.

*coughs* Back to the blog post.

This final episode had a lot of good writing and directing on display, but one thing I noticed especially was how the tension built throughout the episode. There were times during the episode where I was genuinely on the edge of my seat and filled with dread. Which, to be honest, doesn’t really happen to me. Usually, I stare into the middle distance, world-wearied, and say “It’s okay. The protagonist always wins.”

And, sure, I kind of suspected he would in this episode too, but worry still crept in. Which was, ironically, really fun. Stories make us enjoy weird things.

Anyway. Somehow, the finale of the Mandalorian managed to create tension and fear, even though Mando (yes, his name is Mando. Din Djarin, who?) has spent much of the season winning and showing off how good he is at what he does.

Let’s look into how the episode does this.

They Showed Mando Failing in a Previous Episode

Mando succeeded a lot in this season. However, in a pivotal episode, he failed. When he brought Grogu to the Jedi temple to contact a Jedi to help him, he left Grogu alone to go fight the stormtroopers. For most of the episode, it seemed like he was still winning, as per usual, but then Moff Gideon sent in the Dark Troopers. Mando runs to save Grogu, and we think maybe he’s going to get there in time — except he doesn’t. He fails, and Grogu is gone.

Whether we knew it or not at the time, this planted the seed of doubt in our brains. Mando didn’t always win anymore. And this was an important event for the writers to have happen before the finale because it gave Mando a low point and put him in a position to lose everything. He went from a confident bounty hunter to a single dad prepared to sacrifice everything for Grogu. We felt that shift, and it made the tension and desperation in the finale that much more authentic.

We’ve talked about this before, but you have to let your protagonist fail sometimes. Readers will identify with and care about a character who has lost or experienced pain, because that is part of what it is to be human. No one wins all the time, so it’s hard to love a character who never seems to fail.

They Turned Mando’s Victories Against Him

Mando’s one of those cool heroes who always does something clever/uses his Mandalorian-ness (technical term) to defeat the weekly villain or antagonistic force. We’re used to that, so every time he gets in a fight, we don’t wonder if he’s going to win. We just try to figure out how.

The final episode changed that by making the Dark Troopers the main danger. We had seen Mando take out hordes of stormtroopers with no problem, but he had already lost against the Dark Troopers once. That’s where that seed of doubt comes into play, making us fear the Dark Troopers and wonder if Mando can beat them.

I don’t know about you, but I felt some genuine dread when that Dark Trooper got past the blast door. I really wasn’t sure if Mando could beat him, partly because of his previous defeat and partly because of how the Dark Troopers were built up as unstoppable.

The writers capitalized on that worry by making Mando struggle with fighting the Trooper. He barely wins.

Which brings us to our next point.

Mando Almost Lost Right Before a Crucial Battle

Directly after his clash with the Dark Trooper, Mando runs to get Grogu out of the brig, only to find Moff Gideon standing over him with the Dark Saber.

First of all, the fact that Moff was waiting for him and had predicted the plan makes him more intimidating (smart villains are almost always scarier). And after Mando’s struggle with the Trooper, we’re not feeling so confident anymore. We’re asking exactly the question those evil writers want us to ask: “Can Mando really win?”

Now, Mando tries to make a deal with Moff, saying all he wants is Grogu and he’ll leave Moff alone. Which makes us all the more worried because even our gung-ho protagonist doesn’t want to fight this guy, especially not after his battle with the Trooper. Besides that, Moff found his weak spot — Grogu — and exploited it. This whole scene put Mando in a very vulnerable position, which was perfect for building tension.

When Mando, who now has Grogu, turns his back on Moff and starts to walk away, we almost breathe a sigh of relief. But we don’t because we know it can’t be that easy. That’s when Moff attacks.

Suddenly, Mando’s up against a villain trained with a lightsaber. We know how powerful these weapons are, so we’re even more concerned. Plus, we just watched Mando almost lose. To make matters worse, he loses against Moff Gideon for a while, retreating and using his vambraces to just barely block Moff’s attacks.

We’re watching, and we’re scared because the writers took the time to prove that our protagonist isn’t invincible. Then, they proceeded to portray our main villain as highly competent — right before the two characters get in a climactic fight.

That’s how you create tension.

Of course, Mando does win that fight, and we finally start to relax. It feels like the episode is over. He has Moff, he has Grogu, and he has the Dark Saber.

Mando Struggled to Beat a Single Dark Trooper

Back on the bridge, we’re starting to get worried again (exhausting, isn’t it?) because there’s conflict happening between Mando and Bo Katan, and Moff is toying with everyone. Then Moff gets hold of a blaster and almost shoots Grogu before Cara Dune takes him down again.

Phew, we think. Episode over?

Nope. Because there’s one little niggling thing many of us probably thought of when Mando vented the Dark Troopers into space. Can’t they get back in through the fighter bay? After all, the writers made it clear that the shields are permeable on both sides.

The answer, we find out two seconds later, is yes. Yes, they can.

Pretty soon, we have a battalion of Dark Troopers storming the ship while Mando and Co. are trapped on the bridge with a laughing Moff Gideon. According to Moff, when the smoke clears, the only people left living are going to be him and Grogu. Meaning, for all Mando’s efforts, Moff is going to win.

We’ve seen Mando fight dozens of times before, and we’ve also seen him win against difficult odds. However, this episode is a special case because he already lost once before, he barely defeated one Dark Trooper, and he’s still in a very vulnerable position. Besides that, Moff Gideon has proven himself capable of outthinking (although perhaps not outfighting) Mando.

As we watch the Dark Troops march on the bridge, we are thinking, “how are they going to get out of this?”

Which, again, is exactly what the writers want you to think. This is a climactic episode. They don’t want it to feel easy. They want it to feel earned.

Takeaway

Here’s what we can take from this episode and apply to our own stories to keep readers on the edge of their seats (because who doesn’t want to do that *evil author laughter*).

  • Letting your character fail and lose things helps create tension and generates sympathy, especially if the character is hyper competent.
  • If you can, turn your character’s previous victories against them by using them to make a villain who almost defeats/does defeat them seem that much more intimidating.
  • Craft a villain who challenges your character.
  • Consider having your character almost lose a battle directly before the final confrontation to call their dominance into question.
  • Show your readers a villain’s/antagonistic force’s competence rather than telling them about it; readers will believe what you show them more than what you tell them.
  • Allow your villain to control the conflict when possible.
  • Foreshadow plot points and plot twists in such a way that your readers are filled with dread. Try to do so subtly enough that they’re not sure if they can guess what will happen but clearly enough that they have definite suspicions.
  • If appropriate, include a moment in the scene/story where the readers think the conflict is over, but are proved wrong when you pay off some bit of foreshadowing from earlier. Keep them looking over their shoulder (metaphorically).
  • Don’t be afraid to put your hero in a vulnerable position; bring them low so your readers are genuinely afraid that this could be their end. That will make it so much more satisfying when they triumph.

I hope this post was helpful! Happy writing, my friends! Go forth and terrify your readers.

And Merry Christmas!

3 thoughts on “What the Mandalorian Teaches Us About Creating Tension

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