Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Making the Stakes Higher

Sharon Dunn writes both humorous mysteries and romantic suspense. Her book Night Prey (Love Inspired Suspense) won a Carol award for 2011. Her first book Romance Rustlers and Thunderbird Thieves was a Romantic Times top pick and finalist in the inspirational Novel of the Year. Sassy Cinderella and the Valiant Vigilante, the second book in that same series (The Ruby Taylor mysteries) was voted book of the year by ACFW. Zero Visibility is her fifth Love Inspired Suspense with another one scheduled for release in March 2013 titled Guard Duty. When she is not writing, Sharon spends time with her husband, three children, two cats and a nervous little border collie named Bart. You can read more about Sharon and her books by visiting her website.
In writing fiction, the advice is often given to “make the stakes higher.” It took me a long time to translate that in a way that helped me construct a tighter story. To me, upping the stakes for a character just means that you increase the potential for disaster or you make what the character stands to lose even bigger if they don’t make the right choices or succeed in their goals. 

With suspense, increasing the stakes for a character usually involves the potential loss of life or of a loved one’s life. When I set out to write a suspense story, I try to come up with a threat that is relentless and escalating. For example in my current Love Inspired Suspense Zero Visibility, the inspiration for the story was a what if question. What if two character, Nathan and Merci, were completely isolated from help and they had only each other to rely on for survival? So I picked an isolated setting—a mountain side during a freak spring blizzard. Those are pretty high stakes for survival right? But harsh weather conditions and isolation are not enough to sustain a whole story.  I had to raise the stakes even more. Back to the what if questions. What if these two people were being chased by thieves bent on killing them? Those two factors help create a suspenseful story, but I can raise the stakes even more by causing more mayhem in my characters’ lives. What if one of the characters gets injured? What if they have no weapons, no way to defend themselves? What if they get lost on the mountain? With that one, I can make the stakes even higher: What if they get lost on the mountain at night? All of these factors create the potential for a character to die, thus the potential for huge loss.

Finally, raising the stakes doesn’t just involve threats from external forces… even in suspense. Often the greatest potential for failure and best place to raise the stakes can be found within the characters. In Zero Visibility, I have points at which each character gives up hope that they will get off the mountain alive. Also, a character’s background is a good place to look for possibilities. The one thing these two characters have is each other.  What if Nathan does something that reminds Merci of her father with whom she does not have a good relationship causing Merci to walk away? When the two characters are separated, the potential for danger increases. 

Upping the stakes is not only important for good suspense writing but for all story telling. In a book I am currently working on, I couldn’t figure out why the romance between the two characters seemed so blah. The characters were forced to worked together to survive, but there was no spark between them.  Back to the what if questions. Initially, I had this hero and heroine meeting for the first time when her life is suddenly under threat. The what if question I came up with changed the dynamic of the relationship. What if hero and heroine had known each other when they were teenagers? Had in fact been in love and had a child they gave up for adoption. Their immaturity at 16 made it impossible for them to sustain the relationship. The stakes are raised not only for things to not work out romantically, but also for them not to be able to overcome the hurts of the past to work together and keep the heroine alive.

A lot of times in a book, the stakes are emotional. A character stands to lose a relationship or faces humiliation that devastates them. The bottom line is, you need to mess with your characters. Create a situation that seems insurmountable and them make it even worse.    





  1. The challenge of upping the stakes is doing so logically and in keeping with the character's personality. The heroine going into the dark basement where three people have already been murdered might up the stakes but it kills the story because it's so illogical. You've given good examples of upping the stakes logically.

  2. Great post, Sharon. You've got my brain whirling. Thanks!

  3. Wow, Sharon. What a great article about suspense. Makes me think about my own WIP. Sharing this with the ACFW Suspense loop!


  4. Sharon, your principles for upping the stakes apply even to things like chase scenes. We can usually come up with ways of making it more dangerous, much less likely the heroine will survive. Thanks for your article reminding us to ratchet it up!

  5. Sharon,
    This was such a well-written and useful post! I love it when writers pass on lessons they've learned over time. Thank you for sharing. I'm going to work hard to use your advice, and try to write better suspense. Thanks for the nudge.

  6. This was really helpful. :)