Monday, January 30, 2023

5 Ways to Raise the Stakes in Your Scene

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The worse things get for your character, the better it is for your reader.

I love doing terrible things to my characters. I’m a firm believer that whatever doesn’t kill them makes them more interesting. But even I sometimes forget to raise the stakes—or even have stakes—in a scene.

I get distracted by the plot, or a world building detail that needs to fit in somehow, or I get caught up in a fun conversation between characters and lose myself in their banter. Anything could cause me to forget to add the stakes, because there’s so much that goes into every scene, it’s easy to miss an important element.

But when that element is a core part of keeping readers hooked in the story, it risks ruining a perfectly good scene.

When the stakes are low, reader engagement also tends to be low.

When there’s nothing “bad” hanging over the character’s heads, and there are no consequences for their actions, the plot becomes less important—and less compelling—to readers. Even a well-written scene can lack tension if there’s nothing at stake for the people in that scene.

Readers worry when characters they care about are in danger, so they’re invested in the story and their level of engagement is higher. They pay more attention to what’s going on, and anticipate what might happen next, which adds tension and keeps the pace moving.

Here are five ways you can raise the stakes in your scenes and keep readers hooked:

1. Add a negative change.

It doesn’t need to be a big change, either. Little issues can lay the groundwork for a bigger threat, or even start wearing down the protagonist so they’re in a bad place when the Big Bad does appear. Small things going wrong can also signal trouble brewing, and is a useful way to foreshadow a bigger upcoming problem. Consider:

A physical change: Maybe a character gets hurt or sick, hindering their ability to physically react or endure what’s to come.

An emotional change: Maybe they realize something they wish they didn’t know, or are too emotionally drained to provide support to someone who needs it.

An intellectual change: Maybe they’re mentally tapped out and unable to process the threat looming over them, or they have all the wrong information to deal with the problem at hand.

(Here’s more with If Nothing Changes in Your Novel, You Have No Story)

2. Show the cost of failure.

The dreaded and vague “or else” can be very effective in stories where the point is to discoverer what that “big bad consequence” really is. But other stories need specifics to fully understand what’s at stake.

Stakes typically have more impact when readers know what price the protagonist and their allies will have to pay if their plans don’t work. So let your characters worry about the risks, and discuss the ramifications for failing. It doesn’t have to be a full blown-out conversation, and even a line or two here and there can be enough to establish why “not failing” is so critical.

You can also show the consequences by letting them happen to another, less important character. Maybe the protagonist meets someone who suffered the same potential fate, or gets a glimpse of “the road ahead if they don’t change their ways” in some fashion.

(Here’s more with 5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail)

3. Make it personal.

Stakes matter when they hurt the characters readers care about, so be wary of having the only stake in the scene be, “random unknown characters will die.” Sure, it’s terrible for those poor characters, but readers don’t know them, so they don’t care.

Personal stakes are also easier, because it doesn’t take much to hurt a character readers know well. They already know that character’s weak points and personal struggles. For example, a mother struggling to bond with her child might be devastated by even the smallest rejection from that child. It’s not “the end of the world” to anyone else, but it sure feels like it to her.

(Here’s more with Why “The Worst That Can Happen” Is Terrible Writing Advice)

4. Have something go wrong.

It’s easy to get so scope locked on how the protagonist resolves the problem of the scene, that you forget the outcome isn’t guaranteed from a reader’s perspective. Sure, you know it needs to end with X, but they don’t. You write the scene as if that outcome is the only option—and the scene lacks oompf. Events turnout exactly as they’re supposed to.

But what happens if it doesn’t turn out that way? How would the scene change if something in the scene didn’t go the way it you planned? Take a few minutes and look at all the possible moments in a scene where things could go wrong, then brainstorm what would happen if one of them did.

(Here’s more with Writers: Stop Being Nice to Your Characters)

5. Give it far-reaching consequences.

One pitfall to tweaking the stakes in every scene is that you might inadvertently “make things worse,” but those problems don’t change anything about the story. (Or you might discover that’s what you have now, which is why the stake feel weak.)

For example, the protagonist might be at risk for injury, and might even get injured, but it doesn’t affect the outcome of the scene. It doesn’t make it harder to win, it doesn’t show the vulnerability of the character, it doesn’t make them realize they’re in over the heads, or the like. It’s just “they might get hurt,” with no repercussions beyond that. Often, the injury is gone or irrelevant in the next chapter.

Not every stake needs to be a story-changer, but don’t just throw a consequence in there that isn’t really a problem.

(Here’s more with Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

It’s the “or else” that makes readers worry.

Keep the threat that something terrible will happen to the protagonist having over them all throughout the book to keep tensions high and tight.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your stakes—either the whole novel, or in one of your scenes. Do you have stakes? Do they serve the story or are they just fake problems that vanish when the scene is over? Brainstorm how you might make them stronger, more personal, and do more to affect how the story unfolds.

How strong are the stakes in your story?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. An excellent Janice Hardy discussion -- which is absolutely as good as it gets.

    One example that keeps coming back to me is a combination of methods 2 and 3: find something or someone the reader can care about, and smash it. The Joker is the most infamous villain in comics, but one reason for that is that most of his big events have become about him actually succeeding in killing (or otherwise destroying) characters we've become attached to. A different story can put any kind of side goal or victory on the chopping block too.

    There's just that extra *possibility,* when there's anything in the crosshairs besides the hero's own life, and the hope of that final victory. And sometimes those aren't safe either.

    1. Thanks, Ken! I love that. It's a great way to mix options and cause havoc for the protagonist. Some of the best villains are from comics :)

  2. I hate to admit it, as I do not always follow these rules, but suspect that in the vast majority of occasions, including romance tales, you are right.