As a writer, you know building a foundation for your story—with a compelling opening and a sympathetic character—will allow you to grab readers right out of the starting gate with intriguing story questions and high stakes. But once you've done this, do you know how to raise the stakes?
While a high stakes beginning captivates readers, it will only get them so far before the excitement starts to wear off.
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!
In this article, you'll find 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.
As I patted myself on the back, Shawn mentioned a convention of the thriller he called the false ending—a final twist, jacking the stakes up 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 to follow.
Definition of Raise the Stakes
Story stakes are crucial to building suspense in your plot, but not all writers know how to 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. Make sure that:
- 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
An obstacle we sometimes face as writers forcing our characters into high stakes situations, is a reluctance to inflict pain—on our hero, our reader, ourselves. After all, who volunteers to go through pain and suffering?
We all do. All the time.
When we push ourselves at the gym. When we give up fun with friends to study for a test. When we go through childbirth. When we put in long days of hard work. When we discipline a child.
We do it because we believe the benefits will outweigh the suffering, and the same stands true when we read a book.
People read fiction for many reasons, but chief among them is to feel something. We want stories to stir our emotions. In order to reach the greatest feelings of triumph and satisfaction, we have to pass through the lowest moments of grief and anxiety.
There is no reward without sacrifice.
There is no understanding of joy without suffering.
In his book Suspense Thriller, Paul Tomlinson said:
“Writers are professional sadists who are paid to make the reader suffer—to make them squirm, to make them feel tense, uneasy, and afraid!”
This is why suffering is an essential ingredient in a gripping, suspenseful story. If your protagonist doesn't suffer, if there’s no risk of pain, the stakes won’t be high enough to keep your reader engaged until the end.
2. The Stakes Matter
It’s equally important that the stakes are significant. This means they matter to your protagonist.
There must be consequential risk involved and the possibility of failure, or there’s little basis for suspense. This applies to every kind of story, but when you’re writing in the suspense genres, you’ve got to crank it up a notch.
You need to put death on the line.
The death doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. It might be professional or psychological. However, it must be brutal and absolute in order to stir up the wave of worry that will carry your reader to the finish.
For example, in The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is in physical danger. But her career is also at stake. Her fervent aim is to win a place in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, and failure to catch Buffalo Bill could cost her that chance.
Clarice also suffers psychological stakes. If she fails to save Buffalo Bill's victim, she's likely to suffer a fate worse than death: she won't be able to silence the lambs that haunt her at night.
The stakes must not only be identifiable for the reader, but also meaningful to the protagonist. In the next section we’ll look at some ideas you can use to develop the stakes in your story.
6 Possible Threats That Matter
As you flesh out the bones of your story idea, you might consider drawing from one or more of these areas to help determine what’s at stake for your hero. This list is by no means exhaustive, but may give you a starting point.
1. Physical harm
This is most commonly what's at stake in thrillers and other types of suspense fiction. It's compelling, and clearly significant. Examples number in the millions.
In the movie Cliffhanger, a gang of international thieves forces a team of rangers to lead them to three suitcases filled with $100 million in uncirculated bills, dispersed into the frozen landscape during a plane crash.
Nearly every scene in the movie carries the threat of physical harm as the rangers deal with natural hazards and violent criminals.
2. Exposure or discovery
If your character depends on a secret, your stakes might include the risk of exposure. For instance, a spy might fear their cover being blown, someone in hiding may fear being found, a character with a terrible secret may fear discovery.
In Thomas Perry’s Jane Whitefield series, the protagonist helps people in trouble “disappear.” The books are fraught with the threat of being found and secret identities exposed.
3. Threat to freedom
The compulsion to be free is one of humanity’s strongest desires. Anything that puts liberty at risk is a formidable threat, and when the stakes include your hero’s freedom, readers will rally around that character.
Think of William Wallace’s cry for “Freedom!” in the movie Braveheart as he and his Scottish compatriots fight to escape the oppression of the English King Edward. William Wallace holds onto this ideal unto his death, and even after it, his compatriots fight for the freedom they all long for and believe in.
4. Threat to dignity
Dignity—the human desire to be valued and respected—is so important to some that the threat of losing it is worse than death.
In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched presents a constant threat to the dignity of the patients at the psychiatric hospital where she works. McMurphy engages with her in a constant power struggle to maintain his own dignity and inspire the other patients to stand up for themselves.
5. Impossible choice
Probably the most compelling stake for a hero is forcing them to make an excruciating decision. Shawn Coyne, author of The Story Grid, boils this down into two types of dilemmas—the best bad choice or the irreconcilable goods decision.
In a best bad choice, none of your protagonist’s options are good. She must decide which of the undesirable paths to travel, usually stepping into certain and unavoidable disaster.
With an irreconcilable goods choice, each choice benefits someone while at the same time harming another. There’s no win/win available. Someone’s well-being must be sacrificed in the interest of someone else.
The quintessential example is Sophie’s Choice, where Sophie is forced to choose which of her children will live and which will die. If she refuses the responsibility of choice, both will die.
The impossible choice is a powerful way to put something vital at stake. Lean back on your possible death stakes to consider how to ratchet up the suspense, and you've got a strategy worth any amount of money.
6. Threat to damnation
Here, your hero’s very soul is at stake. These stories often involve a redemption plot, where your character strives to repent past mistakes or must set forth on a difficult mission to prevent losing himself to a fate worse than death.
In Stephen King’s story The Green Mile, Paul Edgecomb does penance for his involvement in the execution of an innocent man, feeling that his unnaturally long life is part of his divine punishment.
Whatever perils we choose to put our characters through, we do so because their suffering will strengthen a reader’s emotional experience in the story.
Now let’s look at the third important factor in providing the sort of stakes your reader will need for a totally engaging read—raising the stakes!
3. The Stakes Escalate
You need to establish the stakes early on, but don’t leave it there. As the plot progresses, you must raise the stakes, as in the gambling game, to heighten the suspense and keep your reader absorbed in the story.
The anticipation of pain is another form of suffering, and is often more dramatic than the pain itself. Thus, suspense—a drawn out anticipation—is one way to escalate the stakes. Playing hope against fear creates tension.
Another way is to expand the scope of the threat, moving it from a single-level danger to a more encompassing menace.
For example, the stakes might initially affect an individual or family, but later grow to threaten a wider sphere. Or, the danger might begin on an impersonal level, where your character fights to save society at large. But then something happens to make it personal.
Let’s examine some possibilities.
Stakes on two levels
As mentioned, readers read fiction in order to feel something. The key to providing that emotional experience for your readers is in making them worry about what will happen to a character they’ve bonded with.
In terms of things to worry about, there are two basic types of stakes—personal stakes and societal stakes—each instrumental in adding suspense to your story.
Personal stakes affect the protagonist on a private level, involving relationships with family and friends, risks to his own life, limb, and sanity. This type of stake doesn’t really spread out to touch anyone beyond the protagonist’s circle of influence, yet it’s vitally important to the well-being of your character.
Societal stakes encompass a wider reach than your protagonist’s personal arena. They might involve a whole community, or even the whole world. They stretch beyond your hero’s personal zone.
Here’s one way to think about the difference between these two levels of stakes:
The protagonist is a policeman in a high-speed car chase, pursuing a man wearing a bomb vest and threatening to drive his car into Grand Central Station.
In societal terms, what's at stake is the safety of all the people in the surrounding vehicles, all the travelers gathered at Grand Central Station, and all the law enforcement officials hot on the trail.
But if the man abducted your protagonist’s daughter, and he's the only one who knows where she’s imprisoned, the stakes become personal, too. Any hope of recovering her will die with the villain when the bomb detonates. Now, your character feels the emotions on an extreme and intimate level. This touches him personally.
Take a closer look at how you can use these two levels of stakes in your story.
1. Personal stakes
There’s a wide variety of paths for putting your protagonist at personal risk. Physical danger—risk of injury, illness, or death—is the most obvious, but think about ways you could jeopardize your character’s emotional well-being by threatening a cherished relationship, a treasured friendship, or hard-won honor.
What about risks to mental health, with the hazards of insanity or loss of dignity? Or you might choose to make it about professional peril—loss of reputation or livelihood.
Create a web of relationships, connections that show where your character might feel the most threatened, and focus your attention there. Ask which type of danger will best upset the balance of your character’s world, forcing him to stretch and grow.
2. Societal stakes
To determine the reach of your societal stakes, start from where your character lives and work your way outward, moving from home to neighborhood to town and perhaps beyond.
How wide is the impact thrown by your story’s events? Can you keep it snowballing into ever more encompassing danger?
Ask, “If my hero fails at his objective, what will society lose by it?”
The bigger your answer, the higher your stakes, and the greater the potential for epic suspense.
Remember to be up front about the stakes. You can reveal more of the “why” as the story unfolds, but let your reader know the weight of the threat early on and expand that awareness as the impact grows.
For example, in The Terminator, it’s instantly clear that Sarah Connor’s life is in danger. The personal stakes are dire and immediate.
As the movie progresses, the ripples in Sarah’s personal pond expand to encompass the greater society. As we learn more about what’s ultimately at stake, we come to understand that the fate of civilization and the future of human kind is at risk.
If the Terminator succeeds in killing Sarah Connor, society—as we know it—will cease to exist.
4 Quick Ways to Escalate the Stakes
This is where you cannot shrink from inflicting pain and suffering on your hero. As you move the story forward, keep this question in mind: What can I do to make things worse?
In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, literary agent Donald Maass says:
“Ask yourself, who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character. What is your protagonist’s greatest physical asset? Take that away. What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it. How much time does your protagonist have to solve his main problem? Shorten it.”
Raising the stakes in your story means stripping the protagonist of something they think is crucial to achieving their story's goal. You can make this feel like they're going down for the last time by adding significant conflict (like the six possible threats mentioned above). This builds suspense and keeps readers caught up in the story.
Try one of these four quick ways to raise the stakes in your story.
1. Loss of an ally
Your protagonist relies on the support of friends and allies. Often, an ally serves a critical role in the hero’s plan to vanquish the villain. So, an effective way to spike the tension and raise the stakes is to take out the ally.
That might mean killing off the character. But it might also mean revealing the ally as a traitor or taking them out of your hero’s asset column in some other way.
In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne goes to prison for killing his wife and her lover. He befriends a young convict named Tommy, who becomes a strong ally when Andy discovers he has information that could prove he didn’t kill his wife.
Just as things are looking up for Andy, Tommy dies in a prison fight, and Andy’s situation appears grimmer than ever.
Andy's stakes—tied to his desire for freedom—are raised.
2. Remove a physical advantage
Your protagonist has an inventory of assets they can use to their advantage. They depend on those in order to achieve their goal. So when you scratch one off the list, it escalates the risk and raises the stakes.
Think beyond the merely physical. This could extend to mental and intellectual abilities, spiritual connections, or other special capacities.
The movie Wait Until Dark illustrates a good example. The protagonist, a blind woman, arranges to face the enemy in her apartment after dark, disabling all the lights to even the playing field. She has the home court advantage, plus the skill she’s developed in navigating without sight.
At the climactic moment, that advantage is snatched away from her when the one light she forgot to extinguish—the refrigerator bulb—gives away her position. As a result, the stakes fly through the roof.
And the audience leans closer to the screen to see what happens next.
3. Undermine bedrock belief
Your character has built his life around certain beliefs. He holds these dear and relies on them for strength and direction. Hammering away at the underpinnings of that faith can weaken him at a critical moment in the story, with disastrous results.
In the movie Flight Plan, a mother searches desperately for her missing daughter within the confines of an airliner. Events chip away at her strength until she is almost convinced her daughter was never there with her, only a figment of her grief and imagination.
This raises the stakes by further endangering the daughter's life and nearly costing the mother her sanity.
4. Add a time bomb
A race against time is always a sure bet for escalating the stakes. If your hero thought they had a certain amount of time, advance the deadline and set the clock ticking.
Realize that it doesn’t have to be a literal clock. Be creative about the way you measure time.
For example, trapping characters in a place where they’re running out of air or the tide is coming in is an inventive way to add a time clock. Or remember the old melodramas where someone is tied to a train track and the train’s a-coming? Or the victim is moved inexorably down a conveyor belt toward a large, rotating saw?
In the movie DOA, time is measured by the minutes the hero has left to live before a fatal poison claims him. Death is on the line, and time is ticking down, which inevitably adds suspense to the scene.
All of these examples make time essential to the character and whether or not they achieve their scene or story goal. They all show wonderful ways to set a ticking clock and escalate the stakes.
Strong Stakes Make Strong Plots
Stakes, done right, are critical to keeping your reader turning pages to the end. The three most important things to pay attention to are making sure:
- The reader understands what’s at stake
- The stakes matter to the hero, and
- The stakes escalate as the plot advances
You’ve also learned how to build the foundation for suspense by pulling readers into your viewpoint character’s head right from the start, and ensuring the reader cares about what happens to the protagonist.
Now, you’ve added the creation of compelling stakes—and how to raise them—to your knowledge base. Your storytelling toolkit is growing with each skill you practice, expanding far beyond your basic thesaurus and English dictionary!
Make sure you bookmark this page. Read all the previous articles in the series and study the examples. And watch for the next post, all about how to present information to the reader in the right order to optimize suspense.
See you then!
What’s your favorite method for setting stakes that matter? How about escalating them? Tell us about it in the comments.
Using the story idea and character you’ve developed for the book you're writing in conjunction with this series, sketch out your plans for the stakes involved on a global and scene level.
What is your protagonist's goal? What is at stake for your protagonist? Why does it matter to them?
How will you make sure your reader knows what your hero stands to gain or lose in connection with those stakes?
How do you plan to raise the stakes as the story progresses?
Spend fifteen minutes writing about the stakes in your story. Then, plan out a scene where your protagonist has a clear goal, and jot down five conflicts for how the stakes might be raised in this scene. Make sure these conflicts increase in suspense. Don't be afraid to apply one of the four suggestions in this post:
- Loss of an ally
- Remove a physical advantage
- Undermine bedrock belief
- Add a time bomb
When you’re finished, post your work in the comments and get some feedback from the community. Don’t forget to provide feedback for your fellow writers!
Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.