A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Realistic Survival Scenes

January 31, 2022

By Jonathan Babcock


Your character shivers alone on the shore, her clothes soaked from her boat overturning in the rapids and her backpack drifting somewhere along the river bottom. She spends several minutes tracking through the forest to collect broken branches, then kneels to light the pile with trembling hands. That’s when a realization as cold as the water she fell into hits you. You’ve never started a fire without matches, so how are you supposed to describe your character doing it?


Unlike your character, you’re not stranded in the middle of nowhere without anyone to commiserate with. Many writers lack the firsthand experience that would enable them to depict a character fending off wild animals, enduring harsh weather conditions, and foraging for food that’s indigenous to a particular region. Take comfort in that. Even if you’re an expert at cooking in the outdoors, can you fish without a pole or set snares? For most of us, the answer is no.


Unfortunately, although readers don’t expect perfection, obvious misinformation will frustrate them enough that they may abandon the book. Every fallacy will distract them and erode their trust in you as the author.


Learning how to portray characters braving the wilderness is far more applicable than writers assume. Though it’s habitually associated with the survival niche, you don’t need to be writing a Hatchet style novel to benefit from understanding the tactics that save people when they’re fighting the elements. In historical fiction, your protagonist may flee into the woods to escape a political enemy. In speculative fiction, he may cross a desert in search of an old friend, or perhaps he gets marooned on an uninhabited planet after an intergalactic war. Whether the savage landscape is the world of your novel or merely occupies a chapter, training your imagination to picture it accurately is important.


And if the task ahead is overwhelming you, the good news is that devoting time to research, focusing on the necessities that people can’t live without, and fully fleshing out your characters can help you write convincingly. Let me walk you through those three steps.


1. The Value of Research

This might go without saying, but you can’t achieve realism if you’re unfamiliar with the circumstances you’ve thrown your characters into. Even if you think you’re well-informed, don’t rely on your memory. Whether a character needs to build a lean-to or locate potable water, study the topic in depth. Not only will you prevent mistakes, you’ll also reveal interesting details that can enrich your story.


Guide your research with these ten questions:


  • What animals are native to the area?
  • What species of plants and trees grow there?
  • What are the weather patterns?
  • How will the environment challenge the characters?
  • How will the environment provide for the characters?
  • What knowledge will the characters need to be able to spend days or weeks in the setting?
  • Where can the characters find food and water?
  • If the characters have any resources, how are those used?

Historical fiction requires additional precision, since you need to be aware of the technological differences as well as how the flora and fauna have changed over time. My first novel, which was about early American voyagers, taught me that lesson the hard way. Plants that are now common in the US hadn’t been germinated yet, fire strikers didn’t contain magnesium, and my characters should have been oblivious to the existence of lampreys. The errors, though seemingly small, grabbed the attention of my beta readers, which reinforces the probability that audiences will notice oversights.


As crucial as research is, however, a story with a few holes is better than a story you never finish, so try not to get sucked into the bottomless pit called Google. Collect enough information to immerse yourself in your character’s surroundings, then sporadically check facts whenever you need to introduce something new.


Visualizing a concept you’ve only read about can be difficult, so if your character is digging a Dakota fire pit or skinning a rabbit, browse YouTube for a video that’ll show you the process. And if neither it nor Google is meeting your needs, thumb through the SAS Survival Handbook. You’re almost guaranteed to stumble upon the answers you’re looking for among its hundreds of pages.


2. The Four Essentials

When your characters are in dire straits, their priorities may not be immediately apparent to you. Survivalists preach that water, shelter, and food are the three essentials, with fire being an optional fourth. However, the urgency of each essential will depend on the supplies your characters have, as well as the climate. For example, water is plentiful in the Canadian Shield, whereas it’s scarce in the Sahara. Similarly, shelter is unlikely to be a concern in a steamy jungle, but in a blizzard it will be the barrier between your characters and frostbite.


Keep in mind that starvation is never the biggest problem in the short term, though. Healthy adults can go for days or even weeks without eating, albeit in a weaker state and suffering from nausea. Hunting and scavenging is also far more complicated than fiction and film imply, so failure should happen at least as frequently as success. And when your characters do manage to scrape together a meal, remember to give specific sensory details. Don’t tell readers that the father and son caught and cooked the rabbit. Make hearts pound as the characters anxiously wait for a rabbit to hop into their trap, then make stomachs growl and mouths water as the meat slowly roasts on a spit, releasing a tantalizing aroma.


3. The Effect on the Characters

Insight into your characters is paramount to crafting an engaging scene, and battles with nature are no exception. If readers don’t care about or can’t relate to your characters, the hardships they face will be meaningless. To ensure that your characters’ coping mechanisms are authentic, analyze each member of your cast through the lens of the four Ps: Prior Knowledge, Physical Limits, Personality, and Psychological Impact.


Prior Knowledge

Each character will bring unique skills and talents to the situation, and their actions should coincide with those strengths. A healer may identify edible plants. A soldier may take advantage of his sharp aim to shoot game. A carpenter’s son may construct a shelter that’s exceptionally stable. Even an inner-city accountant may contribute his expertise by maintaining an inventory of resources. During your outlining or brainstorming stage, consider what type of background could raise the stakes or prevent your character from dying on his first night without a roof over his head.


The danger here is reducing your characters to Mary Sues. As I’ve been emphasizing throughout this article, they are not on a picnic, and if they come across as undaunted and perfect, they won’t be believable. If they have military or trailblazing experience, that’s fantastic, but the average person will be mostly ignorant of survival techniques. You have Google at your fingertips—they don’t. Use your research to shape the obstacles they need to overcome, but don’t allow it to trickle down to your characters. They should screw up. A lot.


Physical Limits

I can’t count the number of times I’ve shaken my head over untrained characters who run nonstop through the night or carry massive loads simply for the sake of the plot. Another recurring mistake is characters who transform into Bear Grylls (a famous adventurist) when they’re navigating treacherous terrain. As cool as that is to watch on TV, most characters won’t be able to climb waterfalls or swing across chasms on vines. Even if they’re agile enough, those kind of stunts usually have consequences.


Exhaustion, pain, and injury should play a role in your character’s journey. Whether he’s athletic or has never exercised a minute in his life, he’ll undergo strain as he contends with windstorms, predators, avalanches—and his howling stomach.



Although people become grimmer when death is hanging over them, they won’t turn into impassive machines fixated on staying alive. Instead, the pressure will strip away their masks, exposing their hidden fears and desires.


As you probably already realize, the trials you put your characters through are opportunities to develop their arcs. Capitalize on that and evaluate how you can force your characters to confront their flaws and change. What choices will they need to make and what risks will they need to take?


Psychological Impact

The struggle for survival inevitably begins with a disaster, whether a broken ankle, fog rolling in, a plane crash, or a boat springing a leak. According to instructor John Leach, only 15 percent of people remain calm and rational after such an incident, while approximately 75 percent have a mental breakdown. The last 10 percent panic and behave foolishly. You should avoid creating whiners who burst into tears at the slightest inconvenience, but unless your characters are somehow prepared for anything, or have dealt with a similar fiasco before, the odds are high that they’ll react inappropriately.


Furthermore, the longer your characters are separated from civilization, the more their morale will plummet. In the real world, lost hikers are typically rescued within a day or two, but an extended period of time without human contact would lead to depression and hallucinations.


Often, the line between life and death isn’t access to food or water or shelter—it’s a person’s mindset. For some, the will to live is an inexplicable desperation to keep breathing. Most people, however, will have reasons for being reluctant to pass over into eternity, as in the case of John Sain. After snapping both his fibula and tibia while hunting, he crawled for four days to reach the main trail. Though his initial instinct was to end his misery with his sidearm, he pushed through so he could see his family again.


Whether your character longs to reunite with his loved ones, can’t bear to disappoint his comrades, or is determined to avenge a wrong, that’s what will drive him forward when the isolation, the atmosphere, and the hunger tempts him to give up—and survival scenes are an ideal context to highlight those motivations.


Surviving Your Own Survival Scenes

Regretfully, I can’t offer you a magic trick that’ll skip you past all of the scrolling and note-taking and head-scratching involved in writing about experiences you’ve never had. That’s why, in addition to the above tips, I recommend exploring new horizons as much as you can. Just please don’t maroon yourself on a desert island or wander off the trail in a national park. Explaining to a ranger that you got lost “for research” probably won’t be received well.


Your attempts don’t have to be extreme. Practice starting a fire with flint and steel. Convince your siblings to go camping with you. Ask a friend if you can join him on a hunting trip. And even if your home is an apartment in the city, strolling through a park might help you describe nature more vividly.


As writers, we’re sometimes so caught up in the adventures of our characters that we forget to have adventures of our own! Writing is fun and fulfilling, but so is living our own stories. And the more effort we invest in growing ourselves, the more compelling our works-in-progress will become.


Born in Canada and raised in Malawi, Jonathan Babcock is a young writer with a passion for seeing new places, trying new things, and living life as an adventure. A student by day and a writer by night, he strives to craft authentic stories that shine light into a dark world. In his spare time, you can find him devouring fantasy books, climbing mountains, playing the guitar, or, more often than not, glowering at a blank page.

He has been told that he tells too many dad jokes (despite not being a dad), though he can neither confirm nor deny the rumor.

You can connect with Jonathan on Instagram @jonathanbabcockwrites, or check out his blog at JonathanBabcockAuthor.com.


  1. Joelle Stone

    Oohh, excellent article!! Definitely bookmarking this one. 😉

    • Jonathan Babcock

      I’m glad you found it helpful!

  2. RuthAnna

    Ahh, this was SO helpful! Bookmarking this for reference when I start editing my story again. 😉

    • Jonathan Babcock

      I’m glad!

  3. Kirsten F.

    Oh wow, this was an incredible article. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing it with the world. Writing realistic survival scenes in my stories is always something I’m always thinking about, and you gave some great tips on how to think about these things early on in the outlining process. That is going to be *super* helpful. Some of the things you mentioned are things I never considered, and I look forward to now using them in my writing. 😀

    • Jonathan Babcock

      I’m late to see this, but I’m happy you found it useful! Glad I could provide some new insights 🙂

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