Suspense fix: Raise the stakes

This entry is part 3 of 26 in the series Tension, suspense and surprise

Although I came across this advice over and over again, I hadn’t planned to include it. I thought it was already covered in the 37 ways to build tension and suspense, and I didn’t want to just list those again. But just mentioning “raise the stakes” probably isn’t quite enough for how important this technique is.

Quite simply, if the stakes aren’t high enough in your book, other fixes may not be able to compensate. If Grandmama’s prized teacup poodle is the only one who’s going to suffer if the bad guys win, other attempts at suspense and tension may seem forced. (Is Butch really going to pull a gun over Gigi?)

Donald Maass (Writing the Breakout Novel, 59-80) and Noah Lukeman (The Plot Thickens, 121-123) both specifically point to raising the stakes. In the suspense structure we looked at earlier, establishing the stakes was a crucial goal of Act I, as was raising them in Act II.

So, how do we do that? Maass gives a few ways: establish a high value on human life (especially if this hero[ine] is going to have to kill), and create public and private stakes—ways in which the public at large and the characters on a personal level will suffer if they lose. In Revision And Self-Editing, James Scott Bell also gives specific ways to raise those stakes:

  • Plot stakes: brainstorm new ways things might go wrong for your Lead—and push yourself. Go crazy; there are no bad ideas. Come up with at least 6 ideas.
  • Character stakes [Maass’s personal stakes]: put the character into a dilemma. Stick him between a rock and a hard place and make him choose. List all the reasons why he must take option B and why he shouldn’t take option A—even though he needs to (and will) take option A. And/or make it personal—threaten or hurt the Lead, or better yet, someone they care about.
  • Societal stakes [Maass’s public stakes]: How might society be hurt if things go wrong? How can you show that, on a small scale or through extrapolation? (231-233).

Finally, Noah Lukeman points out that even seemingly small events can have big personal stakes—he uses the example of getting the trash to the garbage truck in time. Not a major stressor for most of us, but if you’ve forgotten for the last three weeks, and your landlady’s going to evict you if you don’t get that garbage out of your place, suddenly it matters.

So give Gigi a rest.

What do you think? How else can you raise the stakes?

Photo credits: black poodle—Rachel K; white poodle—buhreee

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4 thoughts on “Suspense fix: Raise the stakes”

  1. Thanks, Kathi! Maass has a whole chapter on stakes—chapter 3. But I really liked Bell’s concrete approach, too.

  2. I’m so glad you mention Mr. Bell. I hesitated to buy his book online becuz shipping is unbelievable. But I’m biting the bullet and spending my kids’ inheritance on more books. Thanks, Jordan.

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