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Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes

Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes


Key Points: Raising stakes doesn't always mean putting people in danger. To keep people reading, you must raise the stakes, put something that matters at risk. And escalate! Go from hook and danger to more people in danger to lots of people in danger. And sometimes narrow the scope, make it more personal, to raise the stakes. Key is what matters to the character, life, reputation, job, emotional well-being. Don't just make it worse, make it matter.

[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, and this week we are raising the stakes.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.

[Howard] And I'm getting scared.
[Brandon] There's a bomb in our… Microphones. Okay.
[Brandon] A very small one.
[Dan] One bomb, in all four of our microphones?
[Brandon] We have to talk 50 mph, or… okay.
[Dan] Wait. This one's about vampires, right?
[Brandon] No, no.
[Dan] Raising stakes…
[Brandon] This is actually about raising stakes…
[Dan] In preparation to plunge them down...
[Mery] No, no. It's about Wall Street…
[Dan] Oh, okay. Or it's about a chef…
[Howard] Wait, we're not grilling?
[Very] Ranching! Raising steaks.
[Howard] Ranching the steaks.
[Brandon] Mormon populations and… Okay.
[Mary] Wait. I don't get it.

[Brandon] [laughter] All right. Raising the stakes. This is… We're going to talk about how to do this. And we specifically actually, despite what that intro said, want to focus more on how to raise the stakes without causing things to explode. Because we do talk a lot about raising the stakes by putting people more in danger. But there are a lot of different types of stories, and a lot of different types of plots. So we will start with kind of the low hanging fruit, as we commonly do, and talk about raising the stakes that way, but keep in mind, as the podcast continues, we'll try to get away from that. Why is it important to raise stakes?
[Howard] I…
[Brandon] Come on. This is softball.
[Howard] Yeah. Because that's how you keep people reading.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Howard] If… There has to be something at stake, there has to be something at risk.
[Mary] Something that matters.
[Howard] Yeah, something that matters. Something we care about. The easy one, the one that most… Most adventure fiction at least reaches for is, "Oh, no, somebody's going to die."
[Brandon] Yep. Then, "Oh, no, lots of somebodies are going to die." Because the basic concept of this is, your hook at the beginning, you want to start with a conflict and someone in danger. So the basic action adventure thing would be, "Hook. Oh, no, our hero is in danger!" Escalation number one, "Oh, no, somebody else is in danger." The president is in danger, he needs to save the president. "Oh, no, it's actually a nuclear weapon that's going to blow up the entire Senate while the president is giving a speech to them." That's kind of your escalation, we raise the stakes as we go.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, a variation of that same formula that you see in a lot of action movies is the final raising of stakes is not expanding, but narrowing the scope.
[Brandon] Right. Now his daughter is there.
[Dan] Now it's my daughter. Yeah. Now it's personal in the last act.
[Mary] Yes. Often… Almost always, again, raising stakes, you put a child at risk, it's again, low hanging fruit.
[Brandon] Right. Right. You can actually see that. Like the X-men movie is a great way to do this, the first one. It kind of starts off X-Men in danger. Then it's, "Oh, no, all of the senators are in danger. Oh, no, it's the young girl who was from our team that is now in danger and we need to save her."
[Howard] She's a vampire now.

[Mary] One of the things, and this can transition nicely into the other ways to raise stakes, one of the reasons that the girl in danger, the "oh it's my child" is because it gets personal and because it matters more to the character. That's something that you see in a lot of smaller scale dramas, where it's not someone's life that's at stake, but it's someone's reputation, someone's job, just someone's emotional well-being, is the thing that's at stake. The way you get to that point is by making it more personal.

[Brandon] Okay. Can we do this for Pride and Prejudice?
[Mary] Sure.
[Brandon] How are the stakes raised in Pride and Prejudice?
[Mary] So, one of the… In Pride and Prejudice, the big question is whether or not they're going to get married. So Elizabeth Bennet…
[Brandon] Yell. We start off. Elizabeth Bennet, "O, no, is she going to get married?"
[Mary] Right. And there's this Darcy guy, and he annoys her. Whether or not she's going to impress him… That's…
[Brandon] That's low stakes.
[Mary] Low stakes. No one really cares at this point. As soon as she realizes she might care for him, Jane Austen raises the stakes by having Lidia run away with someone that he hates.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Mary] Which then makes it impossible for her to marry him. So she raises the stakes that way by introducing something that is both personal, because it's Lizzy's sister...
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] And also creates a direct conflict. So even if she rescues her sister, she is… This is one of those yes, but scenarios that I talk about so much. Can they rescue her? Yes, but now she has aligned herself with someone that will make Mr. Darcy find Jane's whole… I mean Elizabeth's whole family repugnant.
[Brandon] Right, exactly. How is the final escalation? The final escalation, for me, in that book is the… It gets very personal between her and him. And it even gets away from the family drama, and gets right back to… Now we care a lot about her, and now we actually really like him because of things he's done, and the final stake is can they kind of get together, can they overcome these things?

[Brandon] What other types of stories… That's a romantic story… What other types of stories involve ratcheting up the tension in different ways? What about a political drama?
[Howard] [groan] I don't write political dramas.
[Brandon] What? Oh, yeah, that's right, you're the one that any time, you can just blow something up.
[Howard] Oh, yeah, I've always blowing something… You know what, let me give you an example from current events, which are no longer current for you, fair listener. The Utah and Colorado wildfires. We've had some wildfires here in Utah, and the first set of wildfires were out in Eagle Mountain. We have several author friends, Bob Defendi, Jake Black…
[Brandon] Eric James Stone.
[Howard] Eric James Stone, all live out in Eagle Mountain. You know, oh, wildfires over on the other side of the lake, I don't really care. Wait, I have friends there, it matters to me. The wildfires in Colorado, Kevin J. Anderson, friend of ours, was tweeting about the wildfires. Then I looked at a picture on the news of a subdivision that looked very similar to the one I live in with little cul-de-sacs and whatever, and it's just ash. Ash and the shape of streets. I looked at that and realized, one, it's tragic that many of these people have lost their homes, but the tension is ratcheted up for me because the homes look similar to mine, and this is in the town where my friend Kevin lives. As I looked at that, I thought wow, this is… If I were writing this as a book, that's exactly how I would do it in order to ratchet up the tension. Then, if you are at Kevin's house, seeing flames over the fence, you know you are headed into your climax.

[Brandon] Right. This works very well with some of the things we've been talking about in recent podcasts. For instance, the seven pointer and things like this, where any story outline that you'll get, any sort of generic story outline, will have several points that are basically saying, "Raise the stakes here." Whether it's the Hollywood formula, whether it's three act formula, whatever it is, there'll be a point where they say, "Okay, now raise the stakes." I will reiterate to the listeners, a lot of times I'm not doing this consciously when I'm writing books. I'm going with what feels right for the story. Sometimes, when I'm building the outline, I'm like, "All right, I need things to become more tense here, I need to raise the stakes." When I'm writing stories, I don't do this naturally… Or, I do this naturally, I don't do this consciously. But it is something to be aware of and learn how to do.
[Howard] But in the books that you… Some of the first books you wrote, your first three… They're all still trunk novels at this point, aren't they? They may not have been done that well, and if you were to go back and rework those stories, you'd recognize, "Oh, I neglected to raise the stakes here in Act Two, and I neglected to release tension here…"
[Brandon] I'm not saying don't pay attention to this. We're doing the podcast, so you can listen to it. What I'm saying to you is take all this stuff in, write, and hopefully we will help you to learn as you're writing to look at your piece and say, "Something's wrong here. Something's broken. Oh, wait, my investment for my characters is not high enough. My investment for my reader is not high enough. I need to raise the stakes." And talk about how to do it.

[Mary] Yeah. I think one of the things when you're raising the stakes is that it's not necessarily the action, it is the character's response to the action that is the thing that raises the stakes. A lot of the times, it is very tempting to have it be an external thing, where you look at it and you think, "There's not enough at stake here, there's not enough tension." Frequently it's not, well, I need to have something worse happen, it's that I need to make it matter more. A lot of times, it means going back earlier in the book, and making something matter more to the character. The character who rescues a dog? Eh. But a dog that you've established earlier as being someone that she's fond of? That raises the stakes. It's making it intimate.

[Brandon] Howard, let's do our book of the week.… You were going to do Myke Cole?
[Howard] Oh, yes. Sorry. I completely blanked, which is not a good thing to do. I met Myke Cole at LunaCon, and he's a Writing Excuses listener. His debut novel, Control Point… Control Point, Shadow Ops… I'm not sure how it's listed in Audible…
[Mary] Shadow Ops, Control Point.
[Howard] Shadow Ops, Control Point. His debut novel is military fiction, blended with urban fantasy. You have a world very much like our own, near future fiction, in which magic has broken loose again on the planet. And at least in the United States, it's being regulated via martial law. Our hero is somebody who hunts down unregulated wizards for the military. Our first raising of the stakes is when his power breaks loose, he suddenly has a magic power, and it's one of the ones on the kill him now list.
[Brandon] There you go.
[Howard] Great story. I loved it. I have never had a… Read a story in which the protagonist made so many horrible, despicable sorts of mistakes and yet I still loved him all the way through the book. It's really a rocking read.
[Brandon] You can go to and start off a free trial of Audible's subscription service.

[Brandon] All right. I've got a list here of a few more things that you could raise stakes on that do not involve people in danger. I want to talk about them. The first one that occurred to me was reputation.
[Mary] Yes!
[Brandon] How can you raise the stakes for a character's reputation?
[Mary] Well, you can have her sister run off…
[Howard] Well, you talked about political thrillers. The smear on the person who's attempting to get reelected. If they can't get reelected, then there's the legislation that's critical to… Whatever.
[Brandon] Well, I would say, it could be even… Like, we're talking about kind of grand scale scope and things like that, which is great, those are the type of stories I usually like to write. But you can bring this down. You know, a person…
[Mary] High school drama.
[Brandon] Yeah, high school drama. Your reputation in a neighborhood…
[Mary] Is everything.
[Brandon] Your neighbors and what they think of you. These sorts of things can be really personal and emotional.
[Howard] A lot of anime and manga… The… I don't want to just point at the magical Princess sorts of stories, but a lot of the anime and manga for that age group is all about how the girls are perceived by their friends, and a little slight on reputation is a great stake raiser.
[Dan] I played with reputation a lot in the John Cleaver books because one of the things that most concerns John Cleaver is, is his secrecy. He doesn't want anyone to know what he knows or what he is. So he spends all of his time trying to fight the bad guys, but more importantly, fighting them in a way that no one will ever see. So every threat to that, every time he thinks that he's going to lose it and someone will find out what he's doing, matters a lot to him. So small things that wouldn't be a big deal in any other action movie or horror movie, are a huge deal for him.
[Brandon] You can do this… I mean, you've got the cop who's staked everything on being right on this. If it turns out, they come and say, "Okay, you're on the line. We, none of us believe you're right in this investigation, the lead you're following. This is your reputation." That can make it very personal.
[Howard] Well, it's very common in the cop dramas to have the captain say, "You blew it. You're off the case." That's… The stakes have been raised twice. Once against reputation, and once we've said, "Hey, this problem you were trying to solve? You're not involved in the solution." We, the reader, have been convinced that you're still the only person who can solve it.
[Mary] Well, the thing that that points to is that there is a consequence from the loss of reputation. That you've raised the stake by putting the reputation on the line, and that there is a consequence.

[Brandon] Well, the next one on my list is livelihood. Which is very deeply tied to this. I think you can put someone's livelihood on the line.
[Dan] The thing I wanted to point out is that raising the stakes like this not… It also affects the character's actions. We're talking about a cop whose reputation is on the line because they might be proven wrong. All of a sudden, they are sorely tempted to falsify evidence or do something like that. So it becomes a big moral quandary as well, which raises the stakes even further.
[Brandon] Well, one of my favorite stories of all time is  Les Miserables. Whether or not, Jean Valjean, trying to keep his daughter from finding out that he was once in prison, that he's lived a life of lies, is a huge motivation for a good half of the book. It's all reputation. It's reputation with one person, but when those stakes are raised, you're there emotionally with him.

[Mary] Yeah. One other thing with the reputation, just looking at smaller scale things, going back to high school or neighborhood, if you get a reputation for lying or something like that? That moment when your neighbor turns her back on you, that's a very small scale thing, but it can be as intensely painful to your character as the cop who loses his reputation.
[Brandon] Or the… If all you want to do is make the swim team, and you've practiced so hard, and you're ready, and you have these dreams… The dreams. Putting the dreams on the line as part of livelihood, it can be so personal. It can be as emotional as the world exploding, or far more emotional than a [Michael Bay] explosion, to have the girl or boy who's trained so hard to make the swim team, fail.
[Howard] Had a friend injured his shoulder, senior year… Football player, and it changed his whole life. You're writing a sports novel, or some sort of novel in which one protagonist is a sports player, and a small injury can completely change your career.
[Mary] Part of the reason I'm a writer is because I had a wrist injury and it sidelined me from puppetry for two years.
[Brandon] I would suggest that one thing to keep in mind is, we're using the generic sort of place where you would… Story you would put these in. I would suggest that one of the great ways to have an interesting and engaging plot that doesn't feel generic is to take these and transpose them. Write in your epic fantasy story the reputation sort of things that we're talking about, or put into your cop drama instead mental health. Mental health stakes can be raised. Are you going mad? Are you not going mad? I mean, The Wheel of Time, one of the most wonderful things that works about it is, not just… The stakes aren't just, "Hey, these… If you have the magic powers, you're in trouble." It's as you use this magic, you will go insane and kill everyone you love. In fact, loss of control can be a stake that is raised.

[Brandon] We're out of time. I'm sure you can think of others. In fact, I'm going to make that your writing prompt. I want you to think of some sort of stake that can be raised that we haven't talked about here. Something that you can do that's emotionally powerful to your character, but does not involve explosions, reputation, livelihood, or mental health. Then see how you could raise the stakes in a short sequence for that character.
[Howard] You're out of excuses. Sorry about your mental health.
[Brandon] Now go write.

[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. Hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out to it. They actually have, if you go to, they have Legion up there. You… There's no trial, there's no strings attached, you just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen, if you haven't already. You can go to to download it and give it a try.
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