Friday, March 18, 2016

Creating Tension: Raise the Stakes

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Hello everyone! Friday is doughnut day at our house and, if I could, I'd pass the box around so we could all be chewing on sugary goodness while we chat writing. Alas! You'll have to track down your own munchies while we dive in.

Last week we started a new Friday series on creating tension in our stories. Today, we're continuing on by discussing the stakes.

In Jeff Gerke's book, The First Fifty Pages, he says, "There’s a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it."

This is a fantastic way to approach creating tension in your story. And if we dissect the thought a little bit, there are a couple questions we, as writers, must ask ourselves.

First, what does my character want? 

We've talked about this again and again here at Go Teen Writers, so forgive me if I'm beating a dead horse. BUT! It's that important. Your character must want something. And that something needs to be driving her forward. It's why she does what she does. 

I know, I know--you know this part already. But have you stopped to consider this:

What happens if she fails?

This is where that fancy word comes in: stakes. What are the stakes? What are the consequences of not reaching that end goal? If you don't know the answer to that question, my guess is your story is lacking tension. 

The stakes are usually set toward the beginning of the story. Novels aren't novels if there isn't an inciting incident, a point of no return. At this moment, the initial stakes are set and the main character cannot turn back. She will lose something important if she does. 

But it's not enough to set the stakes that one time. You must continually raise them as the story moves forward. The cost of failure must climb throughout the course of your novel. 

Shall we use Katniss as an example? Spoiler alert, guys.

In the Hunger Games, the stakes are laid out for us in the form of internal monologue. Katniss tells the reader all about the Hunger Games and the reaping, and she discusses the odds of her own name being drawn. By the time the children of District 12 are all lined up, we understand how desperate her family will be if they lose her to the games. At this point, the reader wants what Katniss wants: for her name not to be drawn. If it is, the consequences likely include death.

But when Prim's name is drawn, the unthinkable happens and Katniss willingly accepts those consequences if it keeps her sister safe. The reader understands that for the story to move forward, Katniss must go off to the games, but we're sent reeling once again when we find out just who will be accompanying our hero. Peeta, a boy Katniss feels indebted to. 

The stakes have gone from horrifying to unimaginable because only one victor can survive the games. Will Katniss, who has already proven herself a willing sacrifice, die so Peeta can live?

As the story plunges forward, much to Katniss's chagrin, she makes friends with kids from other districts and the idea of killing them as part of a game makes the desperate task before her unendurable, and we, the readers, continue to feel the impossibility of her situation. 

Author Suzanne Collins creates tension by continually telling Katniss, "No."

"I know you want to live peacefully, Katniss, but no. You have to fight."

"I know you want to keep everyone alive, Katniss, but no. You're going to have to choose."

"I know you'd rather die than kill a friend, but no. If you refuse to play the Capital's game, your sister and your mother will starve."

So, while there is THAT THING your character wants more than anything else, it can absolutely change as the story progresses. Other wants might creep in to--temporarily or permanently--trump that desire. We call that character growth. And it is a result of your character's adaptation to the obstacles thrown at her.

As the author of page-turning stories, you must get into the habit of telling your characters "No." Any little "yes" you hand out, must cost them something. I won't rehash try/fail cycles, but keep Jeff Gerke's advice in mind as you write. 

Give your character and your readers something worth wanting, and then do your best to take it away. If your hero wants it bad enough, she'll fight you for it and your audience will thank you for writing a story chock-full of tension.

Think about the story you're working on now. How many times do you raise the stakes on your main characters? Are the consequences truly dire if they fail?


  1. The stakes are fairly low in mine at first.
    If Avartes dosen't find the King's Hem and prove his innocence his bounty will be raised to the point that Bounty Hunters might take notice of him.
    Then his last friend believes that Avartes actually did steal the gem, and Avartes must earn his trust back.
    Then he learns his long dead sister actually isn't quite so dead, but she is out to kill him if he fails to find the gem.
    Then people in the city begin to go crazy, acting out each of the seven deadly sins, and Avartes suspects the gem is doing it. And Avartes, while often uncaring of others, dosen't want to let that many people die.
    Then Avartes learns the gem infected his sister, and the only way to cure it is destroy the gem, so he will have to choose between destroying it and returning it.
    Next he destroys it, and while curing his sister, it released the Seven Sins from within.

    Then it goes to book two...

    1. Great job! I love that more and more characters get involved as the story progresses. His sense of loss will be much higher if he fails. Bravo!

    2. Lol! That's quite a mess your character gets himself into. The stakes should rise as the story continues and starting with strictly personal stakes which grow is great for your character and conflict.

    3. I forgot to mention that a group of bounty hunters shows up anyway, and they all get infected, but they become his last allies for the rest of the series.

    4. How/when do they show up in the book?

    5. They show up when the original thief of the gem pays them to hunt down Avartes, and the bounty hunters show up at first trying to ambush Avartes as he sneaks into the other thief's hideout.

    6. And also they first make the appearance right before he learns his sister is alive.

    7. Sweet! They sound pretty cool. How large is the group?

    8. There is a dwarf, a wizard, a telepath, and a master swordsman. And later Avartes and his sister join with the group of bounty hunters when Avartes destroys the gem.

    9. Interesting group! I see a lot of potential there.

    10. I love group dynamics! I like to handle a lot of characters, so I'm always interested in that kind of thing.

  2. Well, my book starts out as Tess being invited to join a new team of superheroes (she must learn to get along without her abilities or she'll be dropped from the team).

    Then they're sent on their first assignment (the whole team has to work together and succeed in the assignment or they'll most likely be dropped).

    During the relatively simple assignment, there's an accident. When they return to headquarters, they discover they've been framed. They have to go on the run and find out who framed them or else they'll be imprisoned for an awful crime they didn't commit.

    The stakes get higher from there, but revealing that would be too spoilery. :)

    1. Great job. Increasing stakes, a crew on the run. Love it.

    2. What crime are they framed for?

  3. My story starts with the royal assassin, Dorlin, on a mission, and one so vital that messing up could mean the noose. But when his powers fly out of control during his escape he accidentally starts a forest fire, narrowly fleeing the flames and death. Since he successfully eliminated his target Dorlin is pardoned, his punishment shortened to an exile to the Vostol Forest. Embittered and angry, Dorlin accepts his punishment, seeking the help of a strange man who'd saved his life before to strike down his rival once and for all. But Servus has started summoning more and more Nair, and it seems like a full on invasion is at hand…

    What do you think?

    1. Exile is fun! But I do have some questions ...
      How did the strange man save his life? What is Servus's relation to the previous events and protagonist? And who/what are the Nair exactly? Just curious!
      My computer is wanting to update (meaning it's pretty slow and may glitch) so I'm sorry if anything is misspelled or anything of that sort since he's pretty notorious with that kind of thing during update related stuff.

    2. The strange man is called Borifas and had in fact saved Dorlin's life from Servus. Dorlin had tried to fend Servus off with his powers (he has the power to control fire but also has pyrophobia) but is unable to as Servus is a ghost and cannot be hurt. So Servus injures Dorlin severely and leaves him for dead, and later he is saved and given medical aid by Borifas. Borifas also witnesses Dorlin's powers, with Dorlin means to keep a secret, so he's forced to accept his help so he doesn't give away Dorlin's secret, even though he's convinced Borifas is a little crazy as he claims to be Dorlin's uncle.

      The Nair are shape-shifting demons from the Underworld, and Dorlin hates them severely. Servus used to be Dorlin's rival when he was training with the Emperor, till he betrayed the Empire and sold important secrets to the elves, the enemy of the Empire; the Emperor ordered Dorlin to kill Servus, which he did, only that in the Underworld Servus' spirit could strike a deal with Hel, the goddess of the Underworld, to escape back to the mortal world if he helps her to invade it. See, Hel feeds on souls, and recently the war between the Empire and the elves has stagnated, so she means to invade and steal live souls on her own :)

    3. I see! I like the Underworld elements here.

  4. The first time the stakes are raised in my story is when the main character, Glorindon, discovers that his Wizard mentor is the (supposedly) last keeper of a great secret: the location of an ancient, powerful magical artifact. With this discovery comes the Quest to find the artifact and use it against the antagonist. But things go wrong on the Quest, and once found the artifact is lost again and heading straight for the dark lord. At the last Glorindon fails to retrieve the artifact...

    I need to flesh out my story a bit more, but that's the gist of it. I figure, what's the point of raising the stakes if you aren't going to make the character suffer the consequences when he fails?

    1. Suffering a necessity in fiction. Making the Quest actually end up benefiting the antagonist can work pretty well when it's done right!

  5. How do you always manage to give me greatly awesome new ideas for my WIP, Shannon? :D
    Thanks a million!!!