Every writer strives to keep readers turning pages, and that means raising the stakes in every scene. We want the reader to endure sleepless nights, forego cooking meals, forget to pick up the kids from school, and whatever else it takes to keep them engrossed and experiencing our stories. Every line of the story must build suspense.
The following are a few ways to help writers raise critical stakes for tight, emotive scenes.
Caught in the Crucible
Are the characters caught in the middle of something they possess, either mentally or physically, in which both refuse to let go? The crucible is greater than the characters’ desires, like two children who want the same toy.
Sol Stein suggests using the “crucible” as a means to drive the plot forward. He defines the technique as an environment, either mental or physical, that bonds people together. The crucible is greater than their desires, and neither is willing to give it up.
Choices and Doubts
Have you ever given up on a goal or decided the challenge wasn’t worth the trouble? Considered quitting? Abandoned the dream for a while? We want our characters to mirror our emotions, and we want them to overcome their fears to succeed.
Consider the choices confronting a character. Have him/her choose between two rights. Which one? Why? Still looking for more conflict? Force the character to choose between two wrongs. Imagine the guilt, the responsibility, the consequences, and the circumstances surrounding the dilemma. Make the character’s life messy, with a believable storyline and characters who embrace unpredictable yet realistic behavior.
Chapter hooks are as vital to the story as the hook in the beginning. End each scene with high stakes, an outer or inner struggle that spins with emotion. This technique will keep the reader up all night turning page after page to discover what happens next.
How can a writer seriously affect the plot and the characters’ lives to raise the stakes? This can be done by:
- New information
- Unexpected complications
- Changes in relationships
- Eliminating a character
- Opposing goals
- Problems: physical, mental, spiritual
A “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” scene foils readers who think they can read the beginning of a novel then skip to the climax and resolution.
Readers want to experience what a character is feeling and understand why. A character’s personality dictates reactions, and the greatest emotion comes from facing a conflict head-on. This is an area where word choice and body language collide and add depth to the suspense.
Imagine a scene where a character’s loved family member is in danger. The character’s emotions are on one level, while the logical side of the character must find a way to remove the danger.
Don’t cheat the reader by failing to use every ounce of emotion and action to build higher stakes.
Fears and Weaknesses
This forces the character not only to struggle but also to face an inner and outer antagonist. Research the character’s backstory to incorporate fears, blind spots, betrayal, and weaknesses. Weave these traits into the character’s goal or problem, then show how the quest is impossible without overcoming the fear or weakness.
Point of View
The point of view selected by the writer is crucial to the story’s rising stakes. The POV choice is best made by “who has the most to lose” if a goal isn’t reached. The person who has the highest stakes will be the one whom the reader forms a sympathetic bond.
Provide the character with more than one role in the story and make life difficult for the protagonist and/or antagonist. For example, a police officer may wrestle with arresting a drug dealer if the suspect is his best friend’s spouse.
Tension, conflict, and suspense explode when a setting is unfamiliar and hostile. Not only do the stakes raise for the character to survive, but it may also force the character to grow into a better person. How does a writer accomplish an antagonistic setting? Begin by concentrating on a few traits of a villain: determined, powerful, an outward appearance of beauty or charm, and the ability to deceive. The adversity of setting can be obvious or hidden but include it in ways that force the character to make tough decisions and then accept responsibility for those actions.
Raising the Stakes is not an engine additive to a story. It’s a process that begins long before the first line is written. High stakes are a mindset that influences every technique of novel writing and coincides with character goals. Look at your story. Where can you raise the stakes?
DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She is a storyteller and creates action-packed, suspense-filled novels to thrill readers. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests.
DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is the director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Retreats: Marketing, Speakers, Nonfiction and Novelist with social media specialist Edie Melson where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.
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