Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes

What are the things that matter to your characters? What things matter to your readers? After we get the obligatory ambiguity out of the way, we settle into talking about the “stakes” and the escalation thereof.

As authors, we want our readers to feel that something is at risk, and that action on the part of the protagonist is important. It might only be important to the protagonist, but whether the world is at stake, or just one person’s reputation, the reader needs to believe that this matters.

In many outlining techniques (three-act structure, seven-point story structure, Hollywood formula) the writer is told to “raise the stakes” at certain points. So, not only must we put things at risk, we must find ways to either increase the amount of risk, or increase the character response to the risk already present.

We talk about the sorts of things that can be treated as “stakes” in the stories we tell, and how we can go about raising those stakes.


Raise the stakes without resorting to risks to reputation, livelihood, or mental health. Or explosions. Don’t use those, either.

Control Point: Shadow Ops, by Myke Cole, narrated by Corey Jackson

15 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes”

  1. This was a good one. Orson Scott’s Card Characters and viewpoint is a good read for this. That writing prompt is tough though. I’ve never seen any risen stakes a well placed explosion couldn’t solve. So the reader thinks the hero saved the day? Put a bomb in the muffin. Cut to credits. Imply sequel.

  2. Tried to get Legion via Audible as advertised in the podcast. The got my amazon login, name address, phone number then said the content wasn’t available in my country.

    Please include a disclaimer saying the offer is US only or talk to Audible about extending the offer to other English speaking countries. It’s this kind of region locking bullshit that makes publishing a dirty word.

    I’m not a writer, but your articles have been inspired me in other creative endevours. Keep up the good work.

  3. Great podcast. It had been running through my NaNo outline to see where I raised the stakes and how. I did fall into the personal threat to life followed by the larger threat to the entire werewolf pack. I think my biggest stakes are going to revolve around my main character exposing his affections for the alpha werewolf and thereby acknowledging to himself his sexual orientation.

  4. I noticed the other week that Writing Excuses now has some French-speaking listeners, so do you think that Mary could also record the Audible.com announcement at the beginning of the episode in French?

    (I’m kidding, Mary.)

  5. Hey, I have a somewhat unrelated question to Brandon, it’s regarding his snippet at the end of the podcast.

    Hi Brandon. I’ve heard a lot of good things about your new book and when I heard that you are giving it away for free on Audible I went straight there to download it. I found it and put it in my cart for $0.00 and proceeded to the checkout – I’m now forced to log in to my account or create one. I log in to my existing account. Now my cart is empty and there’s no Legion to listen to :/ Turns out I can’t have it just because I’m Swedish. I don’t think that is fair. Where can I buy your book, I’m looking to purchase Emperor’s Soul as well as Legion but since I can’t access them on Audible I’m unable to get them I think. Sucks that Audible have a lot of great writers books that I can’t access. I can’t remember who’s but I was actually forced to download the book of an author illegaly through a torrent site just because I could not find a way to purchase it.

    Anyway if you could help a poor swede out it would be great because I’m loving your past work and I’m eager to read the next one. Probably sound like a fanboy now but I was actually reading your books before you were announced as a writer for the WoT series, which I also enjoy of course. Favourite book for now is The Way of Kings so please have that out asap and available to us Swedes and the other poor countries who can’t access newly released stuff.

  6. Niclas & Matthew, I’m sorry you had this experience. Audible didn’t tell us ahead of time what countries the offer would be available in—and when we were recording the spot, we didn’t think about it.

    There might be contractual reasons for it not to be available in the UK or (former) Commonwealth countries—but there’s no good reason it shouldn’t be available in Sweden. I will try to ask the Audible people.

  7. Alright, thanks for the quick reply, it’s appreciated. I’ll keep an eye out on Audible then I suppose. Please if you find anything out though let us know so I won’t have to keep pressing F5 on Audible.com for the rest of my life =)

  8. Loved the podcast. In fact, I’ve loved all the podcasts. This is just exactly what I needed to put some life back into the novel I’m writing.

    Question: This seems like advice for the writing process as you are writing the novel. Other advice seems like it’s for the revision process. Am I correct? There are so many rules, it seems like the only way you can fix some of them is during the revision process. Of course, since I’ve never revised a novel, I couldn’t know.

  9. Great podcast!

    In my film classes we had a lecture on Raising the Stakes. When we got to how to raise the stakes when the character’s life was on the line, my professor actually suggested some of what you guys talked about, namely increasing the number of people who are on the line or changing the quality of the stakes.

    But, my Prof also suggested to raise the stakes you can reduce the likelihood the hero will survive or succeed. It’s the easiest way to deal with having a hero’s life on the line already since the hero can’t die twice. The stakes are raised relative to the hero’s ability to accomplish their goal. An example of this is the end of Die Hard, where John McClane is so close to saving Holly but he has only 2 bullets left. At that point the stakes are raised because John McClane’s normal method of solving problems (Shooting everyone) becomes impossible. He has only 2 bullets and he has to use them wisely.

  10. What a challenging podcast. I’m listening this at the beginning of the last week of the Nano. and you guys forced me to look at my story only to realized that the stake or pretty low.Seriously guys look at what you’ve done to me, i’m so fueled up to write like a maniac and try to catch up my remaining 20k words before the 30th.

  11. After focusing solely on nonfiction for years and years, I’ve decided to give fiction writing a chance. I was inspired by Brandon’s Mistborn. Series that I read over the last two weeks recovering from a car accident. It helped in more ways than one. I found this podcast and want to thank each of you for giving back to the writing community.

    I look forward to following along.

  12. As ever, an excellent podcast. I’ve been listening to this since season 1, and now find myself in the rather enjoyable position of working on the 3rd book of a three book deal.

    It struck me that what you were all discussing here is of particular importance in an ongoing series. As the books go on, it becomes fairly clear (because I’m not George RR Martin) who’s going to survive long-term. And so, while, I’m working on a a series driven primarily by a series of explosions, where the stakes really come from is from the smaller events – the character relations, their reputations, so that it becomes not a question of who will survive, but what will left standing after victory has been secured.

    Just thought I’d add that.

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