Raising the Stakes

Published on October 6th

In writing and editing, we talk a lot about raising the stakes and making sure that there’s enough tension in your story. But how can you do that? One way that I really like is to make your characters choose between the thing they thought mattered most to them and the thing that they’ve now discovered matters more.

If you’re writing a romance, your hero or heroine starts out the book thinking that they don’t need love, they’re doing fine without it, thanks. Then they meet this one special person who they might have feelings for, but there’s an obstacle. She’s a Democrat and he’s a Republican, or she never wanted kids and he has custody of his three adorable but rambunctious orphaned nephews, or she’s a proper young lady with close family ties and he’s a wild rake they’ll never approve of. Now, to raise the stakes, give your hero or heroine something they really do want from the beginning as well, and put them in a position of deciding between that initial want or need and this new person who has become their goal unintentionally. The filmmaker gets a grant to finish her documentary, but she can only take it if she abandons the hot cowboy she fell in love with while cooling her heels on her aunt’s ranch, for example. She didn’t want the cowboy or the ranch to start with… but now that it comes down to a question of having what she initially wanted versus getting to keep what she’s come to love, she’s in a crisis.

Obviously this doesn’t just work with romances, either. Let’s say you’re writing a sci-fi epic. The heroine starts out not wanting to get involved in the big galactic peace talks – she’s a soldier, not a politician, this isn’t her place. She just wants to go back to exploring, or take the peace that’s finally fallen over her part of the galaxy and retire, or keep doing her cargo runs just like she’s always done and stay the hell out of the public eye (those are all forms of the classic “hero refuses the call to adventure” part of the Hero’s Journey, by the way). She gets dragged into the peace talks one way or another, of course, because she’s Our Hero and that’s how the story goes, and she’s bumbling along managing as well as she can… when suddenly something offers her the perfect opportunity to take what she originally wanted. An element of the peace talks requires more exploration, in the first instance, or in the second a morally dubious politician offers her a chance to escape all of this and just go back to her quiet retirement, or, in the third case, she gets an offer for a really lucrative load of cargo that would take her far, far, away from all this diplomatic bullshit and media attention. But somehow, over the course of the talks, she’s become invested and realized that their outcome matters to her. Somebody’s talking about mining her quiet retirement planet, or the baddies are threatening her trade routes, or she’s started to fall in love with an idealistic alien on the other side of the table.

The story offers your hero the chance to have the thing they originally thought she wanted… and it suddenly doesn’t sound nearly as sweet as it once did, because they’ve realized there’s more at stake, or maybe just that they like whatever they’ve happened upon a lot better than they expected. And that’s how the audience knows for sure that their intentions and goals have shifted, and that they’re not the person they started out as. Your hero is going to stick this quest (whatever it is) through to the end, now. And the stakes just ramped up a little bit more, because they had to turn down something that mattered to them in order to do that.

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