We often hear writers and books on writing talk about “raising the stakes,” but what does that really mean?
In short, raising the stakes means making things worse for your characters. This is usually done in degrees, so the first thing you need to determine is what bad situation your character is going to start in, then ask yourself, “how can I make it worse?”
Let’s look at an example of how the stakes can be raised for a story:
Our hero is a cop. Let’s call him Bob. And a murderer Bob put in jail has been released on a technicality and Bob fears retribution.
This is the situation at the beginning of the story. You’ll note that fear of retribution from a murderer is pretty significant to start with. But there’s also lots of ways the situation can get worse.
To raise the stakes Bob receives a threatening phone call. This increases Bob’s fear of retribution and lends evidence to his worries.
To raise the stakes again, let’s say Bob tells someone, but when they check his phone records they can’t find proof of any phone call. Which means no one believes Bob and now he’s on his own to deal with the murderer.
We can continue raising the stakes by having his boss worry about him, wanting to put him on psychological leave, which takes away Bob’s resources to protect himself and put the murderer back behind bars.
How can this get worse? How about the murderer breaks into Bob’s house (while Bob is away) and kills Bob’s dog. Now it’s no longer just verbal taunts, the situation has escalated into violence.
And so forth until you reach the climax of your story.
Raising the stakes can be done on multiple levels. We looked at the primary external conflict with the murderer but there can also be secondary external conflicts as well as internal conflicts.
An example of a secondary external conflict could be: Bob is in the middle of a divorce. There could be a scene or two in your story establishing this, and maybe they’re fighting over who gets the dog. When the murderer kills the dog the stakes in the divorce plotline are raised. His ex-wife could claim he had the dog killed just to spite her, which in turn could make the judge in the divorce case rule against Bob.
You can also raise the stakes on internal conflict, too. An example is: Bob has lost his confidence about being able to do his job. When he claims the murderer called him but there’s no evidence the stakes are rising on his insecurities. Maybe he can’t do his job. Maybe he’s crazy. And when his boss threatens to put him on psychological leave his internal conflict stakes are raised again. If his boss doubts him, maybe his fears are true.
Finding out what your character wants and why will help determine your external and internal conflict and offer insight into how to raise the stakes.
Just remember that you want a logical escalation. If you start too big you’ll have no where to go, but if you don’t start with a big enough problem, you might not capture the reader’s attention. Start big and build to enormous.