Man On Wire: The Importance Of Narrative Tension

Originally Published: February 2014

by K. Marcus

seanmcarthyMAN ON WIRE, the documentary about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 was used by Sean McCarthy, owner of the Sean McCarthy Literary Agency, as a metaphor for planning and creating narrative tension in the manuscript.

McCarthy focused on the manuscript’s first three chapters as those are read by agents and editors. This was a presentation from the traveling SCBWI Roadshow in Tarrytown on February 8, 2014.

Petit took 5 years to plan his high-wire walk.  While McCarthy is not suggesting authors and illustrators take that long, he did stress that preplanning plotting, pacing, external/internal conflict, motivation, stakes and character development is more favorable “than forcing it in later.”  In the first three chapters, it is necessary to “lay hints and groundwork for those reveals later on.”  There should be “one conflict at the beginning and it should be resolved at the end.”

The reader should meet the protagonist in the first chapter.  McCarthy advises creating an in depth character biography.  All of this information does not need to be in the story as “what the writer needs to know is different than what the reader needs to know.”

“Decide where the wire starts and where it is going to end.”

The first three chapters should give a good idea of the story and where it is going; writers should give enough information so the reader can connect, anticipate and want to keep reading.  The protagonist must change at the end and “should be the agent of change” by being proactive and making decisions.  The protagonist needs physical and emotional obstacles to overcome which maintains narrative tension but “the internal and external conflicts should not be aligned too closely.”

Writers build emotional tension in the reader by creating stakes for the protagonist.  It was no secret what the stakes were for Petit, one misstep on the high-wire meant his death.  But Petit also realized that while those stakes were high, he could up the tension by not only walking across the wire, but “by dancing.”

The reader connects emotionally with the main character by understanding and feeling those stakes.  Our protagonists may not have their imminent death as the stakes, but any stakes must feel just as important to the reader.  “Narrative tension exists when failure is close at hand; the main character should be given pause by the stakes.”

McCarthy said, in his experience, the first three chapters are usually very polished.  It is imperative to writers to have the whole manuscript as polished as the beginning.

“Put your work away for 3 months and when you go back toit, you will be a more experienced writer and be able to see flaws.”

The publishing industry “can be subjective and out of our control because you are dependent on other people making decisions.”  What can the author and illustrator do?  McCarthy recommends: “make goals and control your work output.”

Sean McCarthy works on children’s books for all ages, and is actively looking to build his client list.  You will find submission guidelines on

Sean’s Picks

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

The Mysterious Benedict Society  by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein

Man on Wire, Academy Award Winning Documentary


K. Marcus is a children’s author currently working on a middle grade retelling of Cinderella.  You can find her at



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