Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

12.41: Raising the Stakes

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary, Mary Anne, and Wesley

When we talk about “raising the stakes,” we mean making the outcomes of the events in a story increasingly important to the reader. In this episode we talk about the tools we use to raise the stakes in ways that are more sophisticated than just queuing up larger and larger explosions.

Credits: This episode was recorded in Chicago by Andrew Twiss, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Try a few of the techniques discussed, especially by making the stakes more personal to a side character. And don’t do it by having anybody be dead.

Thing of the week: The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl by Melissa Keil.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Raising the stakes over the long haul? How do you keep it interesting? Lots of smaller plots, smaller scenes that raise the stakes in different ways. Subplots! Make the failure worse, and worse. Mounting consequences! Put yourself into it. Find the personal issues for the character. More specific, and more personal. Use try-fail cycles, yes-but/no-and, and build new problems out of old solutions. Rest points can accent the pedal-to-the-metal moments, if they are real. Build a stairway, always up and progressing, but there are plateaus as well as risers. The question raised at the beginning must matter, it must be gripping, then the stakes will carry you. Don’t raise the stakes too fast and too high! Save your great finish for the end, don’t give it away too early. Also, delayed consequences, or solutions that postpone the problem without solving it may work for you.

[Mary] Season 12, Episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Raising the Stakes.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Mary Anne] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Wesley] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Mary Anne] I’m Mary Anne.
[Wesley] And I’m Wesley.

[Brandon] We’re going to talk about raising the stakes and making it more personal. This is in the novel month. We want to specifically talk about how you can continue to raise stakes for a story across a long period of time. So I’m going to ask you that. How do you keep reader’s interest through the long form? How do you keep them… How you get them to keep reading something so long?
[Wesley] I mean, really, for a novel length piece, we’re talking about an overall plot that will span the hundred thousand words that makes up a novel. But…
[Brandon] Hundred thousand? Hum…
[Wesley] Or half a novel. Or act one of Brandon’s book. But then, also within that hundred thousand words and the main plot are a bunch of smaller plots, smaller scenes that really come together that are always continually raising the stakes in different ways.
[Brandon] Okay. What are some of those ways?
[Wesley] So, for example, in the Rise of Io, it’s… There’s the main plot for the character, who is… Who has been inhabited by an alien and she is trying to not only survive the whole encounter, but she’s also trying to figure out who she is. On top of that, she’s also a con woman who is on a run from gangsters. She is dealing with the fact that she lives in a slum.
[Brandon] So you’re talking about adding some subplots and things like this to raise the stakes?
[Wesley] Subplots that help build environment to develop the character, and also, it’s an incremental… I guess I’m trying to figure out the right word for it. You’re ratcheting things up slowly.
[Mary] I think this is the thing when we’re talking about raising the stakes, what we’re looking for are ways to make things worse for the character. I think that there’s… I’m going to talk about two basic paths that you can take. One is that you can still have the same thing that can go wrong, but you can make the failure point of that worse. So if, for instance, the popular kid is afraid that people are going to discover that they are homeless. Okay, that’s a bad failure point. But it can become worse if people discover that they are homeless, the failure point can be worse if as a consequence to that, that could lead to them being put into foster care and taken away from their family. So it’s the same failure… The same thing is at stake, I don’t want people to find out that I’m homeless, but the failure point can become worse and worse and worse and worse.
[Brandon] Right, right. I had this in college when I was a professor… Actually, I still am, but… It was more of… It happened a lot more when I was teaching freshman comp that if somebody failed, that was bad. But if a student from another country failed, that could be even worse. It could mean they didn’t meet their credit requirements and they could get shipped home. Getting your parents angry at you is one thing, and getting shipped back to… If you’re doing study abroad, and losing your ability to continue at school is even worse. So, this sort of thing… Yeah. You can make that failure more drastic.
[Wesley] The consequences of everything that happens.

[Mary Anne] I’d like to connect to that… It’s funny, I was also thinking about parent-child conflicts and school. But I kind of want to take a step back, because I think when I’m trying to figure out what the stakes of my story are and the stakes of the characters, I tend to go back to what do I care about, what is frightening to me, what is at stake for me, what am I emotionally invested in, because I feel that that… I write that more convincingly.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary Anne] So, for example, when I was in college, we had this South Asian students group meeting where we all sat around in a circle, and it was this kind of encounter session kind of thing. We were talking about what are we afraid of and what’s it like being here in college and 95% of us were… Wanted to talk about dating and how we were terrified that our parents would find out. We were really, really scared about it. Right? Because it was a huge deal. There was one girl who in fact her parents found out that she was dating a white boy and they had cut her off and she had to drop out of college for two years until she could reapply independently for financial aid. It was… It is potentially your whole family on the line. Then there were a couple of people who were like, “Oh, wow, my parents are totally cool. This is just not an issue for me.” So I think that’s always made me think when I’m setting a story, “What are the issues for my character?” And they’re not necessarily going to be universal issues, right?
[Wesley] That’s a really good point. So, for example, like the world is ending. Wow, that sucks. But then for the character, what does that mean that the world is ending? It’s suddenly my child will never grow up and experience a full life. My loved ones will… So there’s all of these space…
[Mary Anne] I’ll never finish this novel!
[Brandon] So I’m seeing two…
[Wesley] I’ve written 90% of the novel, and I’ll never finish.
[Brandon] Different…
[Mary Anne] Well, you don’t even… Sorry.

[Brandon] Sorry. Two different general themes here. One is what Mary was saying earlier which is make it more specific. Make the consequence a little rougher by making more specificity in their life, and the other one’s another kind of take on the same thing. But you’re saying make it more personal. Let us know the personal consequences of this failure.
[Mary] A lot of times that is the thing that makes the failure point worse. It’s like, “Oh, if we don’t do this, the drinking water could become contaminated.” Everyone agrees that’s a bad idea. But as soon as you know, if the main character then meets one of the little kids who’s drinking that water, then that becomes… That is actually all by itself making the failure point worse, because it has become personal for the main character. Even without actually adding any complications to it. So that’s one way that you can actually raise the stakes without adding plot points.
[Mary Anne] I think you can keep interrogating yourself as a writer, because like, my awareness of consequences… It changes every year, right? Like, last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I’m fine now. But one thing I realized, like the day I was diagnosed, is that I suddenly had this terror that I was not going to be around long enough to tell my kids everything that they would need to know. I was like I wanted to like go and record video messages to them like for hours to like here’s all the wisdom I have, just in case. It would not have occurred to me a week before hand that that would be like the biggest issue in my life. Right?

[Mary] I think when we talk about write what you know, that’s the kind of thing people are talking about. It’s not, “Oh, you must write your life experience,” it’s that you can take things that you know that the deep emotions, and extrapolate from them into settings that your characters are experiencing. One of the other things that I think you can do is that you can… And this is a thing that happens a lot with try-fail cycles, that you can introduce a new problem that has been caused by a previous solution. Like, for example, in the southern United States, they were having problems with soil erosion. So they introduced this plant called kudzu. If you’ve ever been in the South…
[Brandon] It looks so cool.
[Mary] It is this great ecological faux pas. Because…
[Brandon] It’s a disaster.
[Mary] It’s a disaster.
[Brandon] But it looks so cool.
[Wesley] Why does it look cool? I mean, I’m just curious.
[Brandon] It looks like the Zerg have arrived and they’re taking over the ecology with this alien creature…
[Wesley] What?
[Brandon] That you drive along the road and you just see these vines covering everything and turning it into an alien landscape.
[Mary] They will just go over houses, and… It is a disaster. It’s this thing where this new problem has arisen. They solved the erosion problem. That problem has been solved.
[Brandon] See, that goes back to one of the plotting methods you taught us a few years ago, which is the yes-but, no-and, where it’s always make it worse. Always make it worse, but… I’ll have a question for you guys after the book of the week.

[Brandon] But let’s stop for the book of the week, because you’re going to tell us about the incredible adventures of the cinnamon girl?
[Mary] Yes. The Incredible Adventures of Cinnamon Girl. This was a book that I picked up when I was in Australia, and I’m like, I would like to read an Australian author that I’m not familiar with, and picked this up on the recommendation of a bookstore owner, which is why we support local bookstores. It’s amazing. It is a young adult novel, and it begins with signs of the end of the world. There’s legitimate signs that the apocalypse is coming and that specifically, the focal point of the apocalypse is going to be this small town in Australia. So it is totally this end of the world novel, but the author pulls off some incredibly surprising things in that… And it’s hard to talk about in some ways without spoiling one of the kind of fun things. But you spend a lot of the novel going, “Wait. Is the world actually going to end or is it not?” She manages to raise the stakes for the characters, which you wouldn’t think was possible when the book begins with the world is about to end. But she does it I getting more specific and more personal. The characterization is great. It’s also a very body positive novel. It’s just… It’s fantastic. I loved the heck out of it.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Wesley] The author is Melissa Keil… K-E-I-L.
[Brandon] Excellent. Sounds really cool.
[Mary] It is a fantastic book.

[Brandon] So. Back on the topic. Let me ask you guys… We have this sort of raise the stakes, yes-but, no-and, all of this stuff that’s going to keep us tense, on the edge of our seats. Doesn’t this just get old across the course of a long story? Doesn’t it just get frustrating for the reader? How do you not have that illusion break down?
[Wesley] I mean, I feel like it… You can’t write an entire novel like pedal to the metal. I think there’s gotta be times when you gotta like pull back a little, let the reader catch their breath.
[Brandon] So is it occasionally that you need to have a yes, no con… We fixed this one, we’re okay? For those who don’t know, yes-but, no-end, you plot by saying, “What is our conflict?” They try something and solve it. Does it work? Yes. But it causes a bigger problem. Now kudzu is taking over. No. And kudzu is taking over and we still have the original problem. Well. That sort of thing. Can you occasionally have a yes, period?
[Mary Anne] Well, I mean as a reader, I think I really appreciate rest points. Right, I like a chance to breathe, a chance to just delight in like, oh, these characters are having a small, intimate, funny, romantic whatever moment that’s just enjoyable. You can kind of lean on the structure of the book. Right? If there are 200, 300 pages left, as a reader, you know that something else bad is coming. That it’s not just… We’re not at the happy ever after. So we’ll just enjoy the little rest. Ah! And then we turn the page. And we’re going to be plunged into it again.
[Wesley] I mean, there’s different formats. I mean, you look at a lot of movies that are thriller movies were basically it’s you are on the run for the entire time. Anytime you solve something, it gets even worse. There’s a series of movies that does that. I can’t remember…
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. Lots and lots of them do that. But I will say… Part of the reason I’m asking you this question is because occasionally, in thrillers, about halfway through, I’m just emotionally done. Like I’m not invested anymore, you’ve lost me. The first half was super gripping, and then…
[Wesley] You’re exhausted.
[Brandon] I just can’t… Oh, of course it’s going to go wrong in some ridiculously over-the-top way. Of course, there’s going to be, yeah, we fixed this, but now there’s scorpions in my shoes. I mean, that sort of thing breaks down for me eventually.

[Mary] I would agree with that. I think one of the kind of mental metaphors that I think about is that constructing a story is much like constructing a stairway. That things are going up for the character, but at a certain point, you have to have plateaus, you have to have a level spot so that you can just catch your breath and continue forward. But those still are always forward. There’s a sense of progression. The… You see this done badly when you see the thing where the characters are… Things are going wrong, things are going wrong, and then we have the seemingly unrelated happy scene in the cafeteria where everyone seems fine.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] And then you know, oh, everyone is happy right now. Something bad is about to happen. So the challenge is to provide that sense of rest while giving still that sense of this rest moment is serving a function. Otherwise, people are like, “All this rest moment is doing is setting me up for the next thing.”
[Brandon] I can’t enjoy it because I’m too tense for what’s coming next.

[Mary Anne] I would also… I’m thinking, like I enjoy reading cozy mysteries. I enjoy reading funny romances. These do not have sort of thriller pacing to them, right? There’s a tension, but it’s a quiet tension, there’s a lot of… A lot of the book are people sitting around and having conversations and needing and et cetera. But nonetheless, it’s gripping because there is a question that was raised at the beginning and it’s a question that matters. The stakes are high for the reader. I mean, what is more important than love? Like, it’s a big deal. So that can be enough to carry you. I’m thinking in genre, Nicola Griffith’s Hild is, I think, a really interesting book. Hild is really interesting because it is told very quietly. It’s a brilliant Norse-type story with a young girl as the protagonist, and Griffith is a beautiful writer. There is a tension that grows incrementally over the course of the book, and it just gets… She turns it up a tiny bit in every chapter. Mostly, it’s very domestic. It’s this little girl kind of like learning how to navigate her world. She’s doing handwork, and cooking, and whatever else. But you can feel the looming disaster.
[Mary] This is a really good point. That a lot of times, early career writers will raise the stakes too fast and too high. That’s the thing that I think is hard to sustain. When I was writing Shades of Milk and Honey, my instinct was to put in evil overlords, to have… It was just…
[Brandon] Wow.
[Mary] Like all of my fantasy training… It was so hard not to do that, because that’s what I read. It would have been a disservice to the novel.
[Mary Anne] That’s because it’s based on Austen.
[Mary] On Austen.
[Mary Anne] Kind of model, right? Where like it was a complete disaster if someone turns away from you instead of speaking to you when you walk into the room, right? Like that’s enough.

[Brandon] I think this is a really good point. Spacing out how you raise the stakes… Even backing up on the stakes for your beginning, despite all of our discussion of you can start strong, right? Well, starting strong can be I’ve just broken up with someone, I am looking for someone else. Hey, I’ve got a nice fling. Hey, I’m getting attached. Hey, I’ve found this person I’ve been looking for forever, and now they’re moving to Australia. Like, that is a raising of stakes that’s very personal to someone, but also has an escalation…
[Wesley] Maybe one example that I think really clearly illustrates what Mary is talking about is Jessica Jones. If you look at it, it’s 10 episodes of Jessica fighting the Killgrave…
[Mary Anne] No spoilers.
[Wesley] I’m sorry. So, but like… I’m going to give you some spoilers. I’m sorry. So, in the middle, like they kind of raise the stakes right away, so that… They caught him. By like episode five. But then… they’re not, well, we’ve got five more episodes. What’ll we do with them? So they let him go.
[Wesley] And then they catch him again. Literally, for three or four episodes, that’s all they do because they’ve already gotten to the very end, and they have time to spare.
[Mary] So this is a fine example of if you got this really epic finishing shot, you don’t want to hurl your shot really early. The other thing that I think that you can do in addition to this kind of thing is delayed consequences are sometimes a way to keep the stakes raised. This was answer… Going back to the question that you had asked earlier, Brandon, about whether or not you can just close an arc. I think that you… That if you ever just have a yes, that that does close that question. But that you can have a yes dot dot dot but, and have the but come along later.
[Brandon] Right. We’ve delayed this. I think you’re right. That happens a lot like in epic fantasy. We say, “This is a big problem. We have put a band-aid on it. This will be a dangerous thing later on.” You see it all the time in films that are planning a sequel, as well, though. Now we have to deal with this other evil, but… I think this is a good way.
[Mary Anne] Another… I have a story, Seven Cups of Water, where it has escalation and every night, it escalates a little bit more. One of the things that worked really well in that story is that the sort of next to last night, it de-escalates. Suddenly. You’re like, “Wait. We’re kind of off that track anymore, and we’re going somewhere else. We’re no longer engaged in that.” And then it comes back. Right? And you’re like, “No. We did not actually solve this. We’re right back in the midst of it. Now it’s really bad.”

[Brandon] This has been a great discussion. I’m going to have to call it here. But I do have some homework for you guys. I want you to try a few of the things that we’ve talked about in this episode. Specifically, raising the stakes, number one, by making… Try taking a side character from a story you’re working on, and raise the stakes for what’s going on for them. I want you to try by making it more personal first, but I’m not going to let you use the crutch that a lot of us use, that they have lost someone in their past or that it’s personal because this is the person that killed their mentor or something like that. It can’t be related to the loss of a loved one.
[Mary] No fridging!
[Brandon] Yes. Just make that one not on the table, and just see what you can do with that then. And then make it more specific. Try to make it a little less epic, but more specific to the person. Try that. Try that instead. See if this raises the stakes for you in interesting ways for your story. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.