The article Raise the Stakes: The Ultimate Guide to Building Suspense in a Plot appeared first on The Write Practice.
As a writer, you know you know building a foundation for your story, like a hook and sympathetic character, will allow you to grab readers right out of the starting gate. But once you’ve done this, do you know how to raise the stakes?
While a high stakes beginning grabs readers, it will only excite you and your reader for a few scenes.
As your story’s conflict progresses, the risks to your main character must intensify, keeping the reader invested in turning pages to find out what happens. Once you’ve laid the foundation for high suspense and captured your reader’s attention, you need to up the ante. Similar to the stakes of a hand of poker.
Finding ways to do this is not always easy, but when you put forth the effort, the results can be spectacular!
And there are practical strategies and tips you can use to do this.
A False Ending Raised My Story’s Stakes
In the fall of 2016, I was jogging along a bike path in Bavaria, listening to The Story Grid podcast. The episode was about the conventions and obligatory scenes of a thriller, and I was about three-quarters finished with writing my first thriller, Nocturne in Ashes.
During the podcast, I mentally checked off boxes in my head. Yes, I’d done that scene. Yes I had that convention covered. I knew I’d put together a pretty decent high-stakes novel, and I’d raised the stakes progressively.
I pat myself on the back, and then Shawn mentioned a convention of the thriller he called the false ending—a final twist. A final scene that jacked up the story’s stakes to a whole new level.
I didn’t have that.
As I jogged, I wondered how I could work a false ending into my story. When I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks, stunned that I hadn’t seen it before. I knew readers wouldn’t see it coming, either.
I wrote that epiphany into the final version of my book, and the feedback from readers talking about the jaw-dropping twist at the end has made it worth every ounce of extra work.
Raising the stakes not only improved Nocturne, but opened up exciting horizons for the books that followed it in the series.
Definition of Raise the Stakes
Story stakes are crucial to building suspense in your plot, but few writers raise the stakes in a way that maintains their reader’s interest. This means adding conflict to the plot without it becoming overly convenient or forced.
If someone has told you that you need to raise the stakes in your story, you probably looked for research on how to intensify your plot. Maybe you found strategies and ideas for raising the stakes, but the advice was more theoretical than practical writing tips.
As you read on, you’ll learn how to raise the story stakes with applicable writing techniques. And when you do, you’ll build suspense in your story. You’ll keep readers enthusiastic about your book. And engaged!
Goal vs. Stakes
Before we discuss practical ways to raise the stakes, it’s important to understand the distinction between goals and stakes.
A story is about a character who wants something, and how they deal with the obstacles that stand in their way of obtaining it. Your protagonist should have a goal—something your character wants to accomplish—in every scene and sequence of your story, as well as the ultimate objective driving them to take action.
Those goals break down into a series of intermediate goals. For example:
- Melissa has to find a way to get past the security guard (intermediate goal) so she can break into the director’s desk (intermediate goal).
- This will allow her to find the computer pass code (intermediate goal) so she can access the secret files (scene goal).
- If she accomplishes this, she can discover the evil villain’s plan (sequence goal) so she can stop it from happening (ultimate story goal).
The stakes are what your hero stands to gain if they are successful in reaching their goals. More painfully, what they stands to lose if they fail.
In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble wants to evade capture, catch the man who killed his wife, and prove his own innocence. That’s the goal.
What’s at stake are his freedom and his life. Men with guns are after him and they’ll shoot to kill. If they capture him, he’ll go back to prison and face the death sentence. If successful, he gets to live. If he fails, he’s a dead man. Classic life or death situation.
Goals often break down into physical components—obtaining an object or achieving a material aim. Stakes focus on the emotional impact of success or failure.
You must provide both goals and stakes for your character.
3 Types of Stakes that Increase Suspense
People love watching sports. But there’s very little point in watching a game unless you know the rules, how points are gained, and what determines the winner. Without that focus, it’s just a bunch of moving figures on a field.
The excitement of a spectator sport comes from caring who wins, and is exponentially heightened when you have something at stake in the victory.
Action is not enough to add gripping drama. Your reader won’t care unless they understand the rules of the game and are able to realize that something of value is at stake.
On another level, the hero represents your reader—when you put something significant at stake for the hero, your reader should feel like something important to them is being threatened, too.
There are three types of stakes you can use to increase the suspense in your story. These include:
- The reader understands what’s at stake
- The stakes matter to the hero, and
- The stakes escalate as the plot advances
1. What’s At Stake
In the stories you write, it’s critical that you make the reader understand what is at stake if your character fails to achieve their mission.
If you’re doing this for your readers, you’ll want to give them everything they need for an excellent reading experience. One of those needful things is identifiable stakes, meaning that your reader must be able to discern, through the viewpoint character, what’s at stake for the protagonist.
Your job is to provide the information your reader requires in order to understand and empathize over what your hero stands to lose or gain.
Aim to make the information clear to the standard reader of your genre. In other words, if your character collects gas samples inside a volcanic caldera, make sure your reader knows what could happen. Your standard reader will grasp that it might be dangerous but perhaps wouldn’t know enough about the specific perils involved, so they won’t worry about what might happen.
There may be times when you’ll need to supplement with esoteric or specialized explanations so your reader can fathom the dangers involved. But keep in mind that the more explanation required, the greater your risk of losing your reader.
Keep the stakes clear and simple.
Another thing you’ll want to do is make sure your reader knows how to keep score.
Make Your Characters Suffer
Sometimes writers don’t like to force their characters into high stakes situations because they don’t want to inflict pain—on our hero, our reader, or ourselves. After all, who volunteers to go through pain and suffering?