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

18.46: NaNoWriMo Week 3 – Raising the Stakes

We are now three weeks into NaNoWriMo—where writers are attempting to write a novel in the month of November. For this episode, our writers talk about how to raise the stakes in your story.  

To make something feel more threatening, you don’t have to make it bigger or flashier, but you do have to make it more personal to your character. Often, you don’t need to add an event or plot element, but simply ramp up your character’s connection and reaction.

We also talk about multi-thread plots, Star Wars, and getting your reader to be emotionally invested in your characters’ goals. Also—don’t forget to ask for help. (And surprise surprise, the same goes for your characters.) 


Pick an aspect of craft that you feel weak on and choose to focus on it during your next writing session.

Thing of the Week: 

A pep talk from Dan!

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Raising the stakes! Consequences! Try-fail cycles. Plan A, but… Multi threads! Ground increasing the stakes in what your character would do. Layer failures! How could this be “blank”er? Bigger, or deeper emotional reaction? What is already on the table, and how can I threaten that? Physical reactions! Establish the conflict first, then introduce emotional stakes. Dramatic irony! Be mean to your characters. Put them in difficult situations. Use the kind of stakes you have in your own life. Add try-fail cycles. 

[Season 18, Episode 46]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] NaNoWriMo Week 3 – Raising the Stakes.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Erin] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] And I’m Dan.

[DongWon] So this week, as we’re entering into the third week of NaNoWriMo, we’re going to talk about sort of the next step in developing your story, and developing the book that you’re working on. Which is, raising the stakes. So, now that you’ve had your inciting incident, now that you’ve introduced your characters and your setting, we’re going to talk about starting to introduce some consequences for your characters. So, yeah, I’m just going to turn it over to the group. How do you guys think about the next phase here? How do you start revving the engine, as it were?

[Dan] Well, we talk about try-fail cycles a lot. I think one of the great ways to raise the stakes is to have a plan A, and maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t, but either way, it’s going to go horribly wrong. Right? This is the yes-but, no-and. I keep talking about Star Wars. I’m going to keep talking about Star Wars. In the inciting incident gets them off the planet and their plan is to fly to Alderon, and that’s plan A. Do they succeed? Yes, they fly to Alderon. Does that help? No, Alderon’s been exploded, and then they get captured by the Death Star. Like, it is a completion of their first goal, sort of, kind of, but it’s also this drastic failure that ruins everything. On the other hand, look at Toy Story. What would he wants to do is be the favorite toy. He’s decided that his… That’s his super objective. Being the favorite toy. His objective is I need to get rid of Buzz. Does he succeed in doing that? Yes, he does. He gets exactly what he wants. But it just goes horribly wrong. He kicks Buzz out of the window, and he feels like it’s his fault. He tries to rescue him and that spins off the whole rest of the story.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I enjoy playing with with raising the stakes and the idea of consequences is that I… Stories are not like just one track. There’s multiple things going on all at the same time. So I enjoy interrupting the progress towards one goal with another goal. Where it’s like, “Am I able to do this thing? No, because…” So I think of this as… Because I often think in terms of MICE Quotient, as single thread versus multi thread. So in single thread, the consequences of one action, like, are continuing straight in that line. So using… Continuing our Star Wars…


[Mary Robinette] When we’ve got the rest doing the princess thing, it’s a milieu. We get in, we have to rescue the princess, we have to get back out. So are they able to rescue her? Like, they’re being chased by Storm Troopers. What’s the smartest thing they can do? They can try to shoot out this vent and get into a chute. Does it work? Yes, but they wind up in a trash compactor. Or a garbage chute, actually, they don’t know it’s a trash compactor yet. What’s the smartest thing they can do? Well, not actually the smartest, but very… The Luke-ist thing they can do…


[Mary Robinette] Is try to shoot…


[Mary Robinette] Their way out. Does that work? No, and they wake up something under the water. But the entire time, they’re still dealing with environment. It’s all milieu until finally they get a yes resolution which is R2 letting them out. Multi thread does a different thing, though.

[Erin] Oh. I… You know what, keep on going.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. So…


[Mary Robinette] In multi thread, the consequences of one action affect another goal. You most commonly see this with event threads, where you have to give up something that is precious and personal in your character thread in order to make the event move forward. It’s like do I… My going to be able to unlock this? Yes, but only by sacrificing my grandfather’s pocket watch. So it’s one of these things where you can interrupt one. It’s also very useful in mysteries, where you’re trying to ask someone a question, and then something goes wrong with the environment that causes you to not be able to finish asking that question.

[Erin] Yeah. I got so excited…


[Erin] And interrupted your thread.


[This is multi thread]

[Erin] but what I got excited… When you said it was the Luke-ist thing they could do, because it really reminded me that the increasing of stakes works the best when it’s really grounded in what your character would do. Like, there are things that can be done that will make the stakes worse, but feel like they’re out of nowhere. I feel like if you think like what’s the worst decision that your character could make at this moment, and then be like let’s convince them to make it, like, that often raises the stakes, but it also reinforces what it is that your reader really likes about the character.

[DongWon] Yeah. One thing I think about on that front as well is so much of, for me, of what does raise the stakes, what makes me so invested in character, is their relationship to each other. Right? How they feel about each other, or how a character feels about themselves. Right? We think of, like, life-and-death situations as great stakes, but I actually find that those can be really flat. What’s interesting about Alderon getting destroyed isn’t the fact that all those people died, it’s about we’re seeing it through the eyes of someone who watches their home destroyed. That raises the stakes for the entire galaxy. What’s interesting about the trash compactor isn’t necessarily are they going to survive this or not, but we see 3 different approaches to solving a problem as these characters are in conflict, of Leia making fun of Han, of Han just shooting things for no reason, and then Luke being the one who is, kind of the [garbled], they need to keep rescuing throughout this whole sequence. So we start to see the dynamic that is going to form the core of these movies for the whole trilogy, of these 3 characters interacting and their feelings about each other starting and deepening in these moments. Now we have stakes. Now we care about how Leia sees Luke. Now we care how Han sees Leia. All of these different parts of the triangle, some of them become very important, and now I’m emotionally invested in this movie at a whole different level than I was when it was just Luke being sad about his parents.

[Mary Robinette] This is a great point. One of the things that there are 2 things that are happening in the trash compactor scene. One is they have to get out of it. But the other is Luke is trying to impress Leia.

[Yeah. Chuckles]

[Mary Robinette] So when you can have… One of the ways that you can raise the stakes is not by making the individual failure point, but by layering two failure points onto a single action.


[Mary Robinette] That’s one of the things that you can do, is, like, hang more on it. Which is, I find, a lot of fun.

[Dan] Yeah. Another thing I love about that… Sorry, this is turning into the compactor scene episode…


[Dan] Luke’s entire character arc in that movie is that he has to learn to rely on something that is larger than himself. What is his solution to get out of the trash compactor? It’s he calls for help, he relies on R2-D2. Which is a really nice little nod toward he’s not trying to do it all on his own, he’s trying to rely on outside help. That is setting him up to be able to make the choice he makes at the end of the movie.

[Erin] I really feel like I should have seen Star Wars more than one time in my life…


[Erin] In order to participate in this conversation. So, I’m going to take it, sorry, turn away, as I don’t know nothing about no trash compactor.

[Wait! Star Wars podcast! Garbled]

[Erin] To talk a little bit about zombies. Something that you said, DongWon, maybe think about it, because when we were doing Zombies Run, we were always like, “What can the zombies… How can the zombies become…” They chase you all the time, every single episode. So you kind of get like, “Oh, zombies again.” But are they closer, are they scarier, are they bigger, are there more of them? But instead of thinking of these as life or death space, I like taking them and moving them into whatever situation you’re in. So, the fact that like there’s a normal-sized zombie, and then a giant zombie, that’s bigger. But something can also be bigger in terms of, like, it just has more impact. It will do more damage if it catches up to you. So, giving a speech in front of a lot of people is one thing. Giving a speech in front of a lot of people that include your crush, who, I guess is Leia… Are there other speeches in Star Wars? Like, is bigger. Like, the impact is larger. So one way to raise the stakes is by being, like, could this be blanker, and just take any word of your choice, that’s a… Any word of your choice. I’m not going to hold you back.


[Erin] Think, can this be blanker? Then figure out how do you do that. That’s one way to also to raise the stakes.

[DongWon] On that note, as we think about how to make things more blanker…


[DongWon] Let’s take a break, and we will start digging into what exactly that means when we are back.

[Mary Robinette] NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, and it’s time to start planning. If you’re aiming for 1600 words a day, it’s easy to de-prioritize eating. But you need to keep the brain fueled. During Nano, I turned to meal kits. Hello Fresh makes whipping up a home-cooked meal a nice break from writing with quick and easy options, including their 15 minute meals. With everything pre-proportioned and delivered right to your door every week, it takes way less time than it takes to get a delivery. I find that stepping away from the keyboard to cook gives my brain time to rest. I love that with Hello Fresh I can plan my meals for the month before NaNoWriMo begins, and then I can save all my decision-making for the stories. With so many in season ingredients, you’ll taste all the freshness of fall in every bite of Hello Fresh’s chef crafted recipes. Produce travels from the farm to your door for peak ripeness you can taste. Go to and use the code 50WX for 50% off plus free shipping. Yeah, that’s right. 50WX, 50 for 50% off and WX for Writing eXcuses. We are terrible with puns. Just visit and try America’s number one meal kit.

[Dan] Hi, everybody. It is week 3 of NaNoWriMo. You’re halfway through. You’ve been writing this thing, and you have, at this point, pretty good sense of your pace. How far are you into it, how much longer is it going to take. More than anything, at this point, you’re probably thinking, this is the worst thing anyone has ever written. That’s okay. What I want to do today is give you permission to write an imperfect book. I give you permission to write a bad book if you need to. I wrote 5 books that were terrible before I finally wrote one that was good. This is good. This is a good thing. Is more important for you to learn how to finish a bad book then how to endlessly spin your wheels perfecting a book that is never going to be perfect. Perfect is out of our reach. So, I give you permission to write a bad book. Finish this. Leave some scenes unfinished. Leave some dialogue clunky. It’s okay. What you are doing right now is learning how to write the next book. That is going to be best if you turn off that internal editor and just crank through it and learn how it feels to finish a book. I believe in you.

[DongWon] Okay. So. As we’re coming back from the break, we’ve been talking about how to make things bigger, and we’ve also been talking about how to make things more, deeper in terms of the emotional reaction. So, one of the ways that I love to do that, is to really start to draw out the personal connections. I kind of touched on this a little bit before, but going back to your zombie example, the way that the zombies always become so upsetting and so threatening is, one, the visual or them approaching en mass, but there’s always that moment where the character you cared about gets bit. Now you have to deal with the awful consequences of the slowness of them starting to turn. Right? So, for me, I think that’s such a perfect example of how to make the stakes almost unbearable by adding this emotional quotient that relies on the personal connections that you have between the characters. How do you guys build to that? What are the things that you can introduce that, like, start establishing those stakes so that you can pull that trigger when you need to.

[Mary Robinette] Well, one of the things that I will do, especially during NaNoWriMo, is that I will look at the things that I’ve already put on the table. So, in an ideal world, I am laying down groundwork and I thought ahead and… But, in reality, especially during nano, I’m often at the point where I’m like, “Okay. I have to make this work. What have I already established that they care about? And how can I threaten that thing?” So most of the work that you have to do is actually before you get to the point where you raise the stake. It’s establishing some relationship, something that will make the person feel like it’s a failure, so that when you get to this, you can threaten it. Like, one of the things that I think about sometimes is, like, someone’s house being robbed is bad. Okay? But someone’s house being robbed and their grandfather’s pocket watch being taken, that’s worse because it’s a specific personal thing. But if it’s… I always, like, “How can I make this worse for the person?” If they weren’t supposed to have it out of the house, and they had taken it with the intention of getting it repaired, and then it’s stolen… That’s worse. Because now there’s multiple layers of failure that are accompanying that. So, for me, it’s not so much that I have to make it bigger or flashier, but, looking at the character’s connections. One of the other tools that I’ll use for that is their physical reaction to it. Like, just the… All of the… Like, thinking about all of the visceral reactions that happen to your body when you’re in failure mode can really make a character like…

[DongWon] I love this idea of making stakes felt in the body. Because, I think when you can make your reader feel the things that your character is feeling in a physical way, that’s, I think, like a huge success.

[Dan] Another way to do this is to approach it backwards. Rather than establish emotional stakes first and then introduce a conflict into it… I’m thinking, for example, of the movie RRR which establishes the conflict first. Two people on opposite sides of a revolution are trying to find each other, trying to capture each other. Then they meet in disguise, they don’t know who the other one is, and they become best friends. So, suddenly you have raised the stakes, not by adding that conflict, but by adding the dramatic irony of, “Oh, no, inevitably they will find out who the other one is, and this beautiful friendship will be destroyed.”

[Mary Robinette] I think that’s a really great point. That a lot of times when we’re talking about stakes, that we think in terms of direct conflict, and that it doesn’t have to be that, it can be a layer of tension that you give to the audience, where they are waiting for… Everyone is waiting, when they’re watching that film, for the moment when the two of them realize who the other person is.

[Dan] There’s multiple near misses. It’s just excruciating every time.

[DongWon] This is where dramatic irony can be such a useful tool in raising stakes. Right? To return to Star Wars, I’m a big fan of the Clone Wars era of Star Wars. Which is so wonderful, because you know what’s going to happen at the end of this, because we’ve seen the movies. We know things don’t work out for these people, and that most of these people were interacting with over the course of the show are either going to be dead or gone in some way by the end of it. So it creates incredible stakes over and over again as we’re in this sort of prequel mode of thinking, because we know where things are going to end up. So you can use really heavy foreshadowing in your story, as in this RRR case, and rely on your reader’s knowledge of just how stories go sometimes, what genre you’re in, what beats are coming in this story. Returning to the zombie example as well, we know someone’s going to get bit. Right? There is no zombie movie that ends with the whole cast surviving. Right?


[DongWon] If it is, that’s a very low stakes zombie movie. I’m not sure I want to watch it. Right? So you can rely on your audience’s awareness of category, of story, and of the stakes that you’re setting up to sort of increase that tension. You can be very playful with that as a creator. That can be really fun.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Did anyone else just feel the moment when someone out there said, “That’s it. No one in my book is getting bitten!”


[Erin] It happened in my brain. Out there? In here!

[DongWon] To use Erin’s recommendation, you want to make sure you’re going with more biterer.


[Erin] That really works for any word, but…

[Dan] More bite-ier?

[Erin, Mary Robinette] Bite-ier.

[Dan] Well, it’s… This is may be a good time to mention that you, as the author, you have created these characters, you love these characters. You have to be mean to them. I used to describe my job is that I was just mean to John Cleaver for a living. Because that’s how all of these books are constructed. There has to be conflict, there has to be something horrible happening to the characters. Sure, maybe they recover from it, and that’s great. Maybe they don’t and someone else moves on and recovers. But you have to be willing to pull the rug out from under your characters and put them through the wringer.

[DongWon] Even if you’re telling a cozy story or a romance or something like that. There are still… I mean, you might change the settings so it’s not going to 11, you’re going to 7…


[DongWon] But you’re still… You’re putting them in difficult situations. Right? Even if you’re doing a coffee shop hey you kind of thing, somebody’s going to get their order wrong or somebody’s going to be… You’re going to run out of milk. I don’t know, whatever it is. But your stakes can change in terms of scale, but the technique is still the same. The core principle is still the same. Your story will need stakes of some sort. [Garbled]

[Dan] Well, it goes back to what you were saying about that emotional core. I would argue that in a romance, raising the stakes can often be to an 11. I’m going to be alone forever because the person I am in love with doesn’t love me back. That’s an 11.

[DongWon] Oh, absolutely.

[Dan] To that person.

[Erin] Yeah. Something to remember is that in our own lives, while… Not to speak for any of you, most of us are dealing with stakes that are those kind of stakes, the romance stakes, the coffee shop getting our order wrong stakes, and our lives often feel very dramatic to us.

[DongWon] Oh, dear me, it’s always an 11.


[Erin] You know what I mean? I think sometimes we feel like in fiction we have to, like, add all this outside force, and you can. But sometimes you can think about the ways in which your individual life feels like it has stakes, and go with those types of stakes within your fiction.

[Mary Robinette] Along those lines, one of the things that happens in your real life, the things that make it feel worse, is when you have more try-fail cycles. Like, I just want to make a cup of coffee, and… Or I just want to record a podcast, and first, they’re using grinders outside, and then they’re pounding on metal, and then there’s a drill, and you’re like, every time, it’s like, “Really? Are we gonna finish this ever?”


[Mary Robinette] So sometimes you can make it worse for your character just by adding in a try-fail cycle. Making it harder for them to solve a problem that you’ve already set up.

[DongWon] I think, on that note, you are entering into week 3 of NaNoWriMo, and it’s time for you to raise the stakes and get to that word count.

[Mary Robinette] And we have some homework for you. I know that this part of NaNoWriMo is often a little challenging, so our homework this time is just designed to help you move forward with your work in progress. Pick an aspect of craft that you feel weak on, and choose to focus on it during your next writing session. So instead of trying to think of everything all at once, just pick one thing. Just say, “You know what, I’m going to really nail dialogue this time.” Or, “This time, it’s all going to be about description.” Will you have to go back and correct and balance some things later? Yeah. Probably. But it allows you to move forward and feel like you’re making progress in making your craft better without having to worry about getting the scene exactly perfect.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.

[Howard] We are now offering an interactive tier on our Patreon found at called Office Hours. Once a month, you can join a group of your peers and the hosts of Writing Excuses to ask questions.