These are the types of action scenes that leave your readers biting their nails. The harder the task, the greater the anxiety level for the reader.
1. A physical barrier, like having to break into a safe or out of a cell.
This is a key tool in every genre from thriller t0 romance. Yes, romance. In the Outlander series, there are numerous times when Jamie and Claire must rescue one another from captors. And what is a heist movie without obstacles to the theft?
2. A situational barrier, such as trying to enter an area that is off limits.
Whether you character succeeds through sweet talk or stealth, waiting for them to get past this barrier can be funny, thrilling, or heartbreaking.
3. Physical restraints, like being stuck inside a car, plane, or train.
Or trying to break free from handcuffs or a straight jacket. Your character does not have to be a magician to use this tool. They can be tied up or boxed in. Everyone can relate to the need to escape.
4. Missing the target whether it is a boat, train, airplane, or opportunity.
This is another situation your audience can relate to. The nearer the miss, the higher the tension. Will they get another chance or have to find another way?
5. Limited mobility due to a temporary or permanent physical disability.
Self-healing thriller characters aside, when your character is shot, stabbed, or otherwise hobbled, they will have difficulty doing what comes next.
6. Misunderstanding the time frame involved or being given an impossible timeline.
The ticking clock is arguably the most intense tool in the tension toolkit. There must be an "or else" for it to work properly. Nothing is worse than setting a ticking time bomb that doesn't go off.
7. Physical distances that make accomplishing the task difficult or impossible.
Whether you character has to traverse a hall, a flight of stairs, an eighty-story building, or rush from country to country, your readers feed on the the adrenaline rush your character experiences as he tries to accomplish the impossible.
8. Being misled about the correct destination.
Friend or foe, antagonist or love interest, missing the bus gives your readers a feeling of let down. They can relate to that moment when you realize you've taken the wrong turn, the wrong plane, or walked into the wrong bar.
9. Not being able to touch.
Truly, nothing is more agonizing than watching characters who desperately want to touch each other being kept apart. It can be lovers who are forbidden to love, or a mother reaching for a child who is slipping through her hands, literally or figurative. It can be the grieving loved one trying to reach the dead or dying. This tool can gut your reader or fill them with longing.
10. Different places or times.
This tool works best in the science fiction and fantasy realms where characters are literally worlds or time periods apart. From Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series to the movie Somewhere in Time, nothing keeps people apart more effectively than being in different eras. Your characters can be placed in different planets, starships, or fairy realms. Your readers will hang on to find out how they resolve these great distances.