Upping the stakes

We all know that as writers our job is to get our readers emotionally involved. We should be continually looking for ways to “ratchet up the tension” or “up the stakes” for our characters. But what does that mean? Does every story we tell have to involve the potential destruction of the Universe, or of everything good and decent in the world?

What constitutes “tension” differs from story to story, from genre to genre. In Romance, for example, the tension usually comes from answering”Will Julia find love?” In Mystery it comes from finding “Who killed Arthur Burberry IV?” In Literary Fiction it’s often “How will Gertrude be affected by these events?”

None of those involved the destruction of all life as we know it, and yet the readers of those genres expect tension, even within that limited scope.

Let the throw an idea at you, and see what you think. Tension requires a minimum of two elements to exist: a character we care about, and a threat to that character.  That’s also the order or priority. We need to care about the character before we can care what happens to them. It’s not tension otherwise.

Now, that idea can be turned on its head, of course. We can create a character so horrible that the tension comes from the chance that they won’t get what’s coming to them. While there are elements to Scarlett O’Hara with which we can sympathize, clearly the emotional pay-off we’ve been waiting for is having Rhett Butler finally lay down some karma.

Last night I read the blurb on a book my wife is reading. It’s about a young woman who got married only to have her husband divorce her weeks later. Wow! Who doesn’t sympathize with that? We’ve got a character, and we care about her already just because she’s had something inconceivably bad happen to her. But that’s not the tension. That comes from the fact that she lives in a society where divorce is stigmatized and all the eligible singles are accustomed to looking for someone without that kind of baggage.

As you can likely guess, this is a Romance, and the tension is “Will she overcome her pain and find true love?” But let’s face it, as old and as cliché as that summary may be, it works. After reading that, even I wanted to read that book, even though I already know how it’s going to end. Of course she’s going to find love! Of course she’ll find someone so wonderful they’ll make her forget all about her pain! You can take it to the bank.

And that’s why the writer has to then “up the stakes.” Let’s face it, we expect the main character to succeed in their primary pursuit. We expect the main character in “The Martian” to get home safely. We expect Frodo to find a way to destroy the Ring of Sauron. We expect Hercule Poirot to solve the case. We’d be disappointed if they don’t! (There are exceptions of course, but we won’t talk about it here.)

We ratchet up the tension in three main ways:

  1. We change the nature of the problem (often, but not necessarily, increasing the scope).
  2. We increase the obstacles in the protagonist’s way.
  3. We increase the personal cost to the protagonist.

Take the example of Brandon Mull’s series “Five Kingdoms”. Our main character, Cole, is kidnapped along with his friends and taken to another world as slaves. That’s bad enough right there. Cole wants to get home. Will he?

But Mull builds in some increased tension immediately in the form of his friends. Cole could make it home by himself, but at great personal cost. He can’t abandon his friends. And so as he willingly chooses to stay to try and free his friends, we’re drawn in that much more. But as we follow Cole’s adventures we find all three methods employed against him to raise the stakes.

Before long he finds that the Five Kingdoms in which he finds himself are ruled over by an evil king who stole the powers of his four daughters in order to make himself more powerful. One of those daughters turns out to be Cole’s new friend, and she could overthrow her father and restore freedom and peace–and even find a way to get Cole home. Suddenly the objective is not just “get home”, but “help overthrow a kingdom so your friends can get you home.” (Increased nature of the problem)

However, helping his new friend means suspending his search for his old friends. It bugs Cole continually that he’s continually having to postpone finding some of his friends. (Increased personal cost)

Of course to help his new friend Mira he has to help her escape the waves of cronies her father is sending out to find her. And he has to help her fight a horrible creature that may be key to helping her regain her power (added obstacles). All of this decreases Cole’s chances of surviving long enough to get home, and it also puts his friends, old and new, in additional risk (increased personal cost).

That’s just the first book. Even though some of those layers of tension are removed each book (each must stand alone in building tension and releasing it), new ones are added on with each subsequent novel–usually faster than old ones are resolved–that the tension gets generally higher with each book as well.

Things work in a similar fashion for Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. We learn that he has a Ring of Power (increased problem). He needs to get it safely to Rivendell, though at risk to himself and to his friends (increased personal cost). There are black riders searching for him (added obstacles).

When he gets to Rivendell he finds that his troubles have just begun. Someone must take the Ring right into the heart of the enemy’s camp and attempt to destroy it (increased problem) (added obstacles), and it seems it has to be him (increased personal cost). Along the way the Ring starts twisting his friends (increased personal cost), and some are killed (increased personal cost, added obstacles). He decides he has to go it alone (increased personal cost, added obstacles).

On his own (with Sam) he finds the former possessor of the Ring who seems willing to help, but can’t entirely be trusted (added obstacle). He also realizes the Ring is exerting increasing power over him as well (increased personal cost). Also, the Dark Lord is sending out his armies to begin his conquest of the world, and his friends are out there in it (increased problem, increased personal cost).

You get the idea. This model might be a little simplistic, but it seems to apply fairly well. A good writer learns to layer added tension into the novel, resolving some, adding some others, but always building toward the grand climax in which the problem is resolved, the costs are paid, and the obstacles overcome. The more of these layers that get removed, the more exciting and satisfying the pay-off.

Any or all three of these methods can be useful in adding tension to your story and pulling your reader deeper in. But as useful as these techniques may be, we should not forget the foundation that must be laid first: character and threat. If that foundation is solid, it can support any amount of added tension on top of that, and the readers will love you for it–or at least your character.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.