Raise the stakes
If you’re stuck and feel the story is going nowhere, this is the time to become something of an Old Testament God to your characters. Zap them with lightning bolts, make their life hell and test them to breaking point. With each test, raise the stakes of failure. But what are the best ways to do this?
- Make your characters fallible. There’s nothing more dull than a perfect hero, who does everything right, or finds everything easy. There’s even a name for this in fiction: A Mary Sue. The term comes from early Star Trek parody fan fiction about Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest officer in the fleet who dazzles Kirk and Spock with her brilliance. She was created by magazine editors who noticed a recurring pattern in fan fiction, where writers would indulge in wish-fulfilment instead of good storytelling. You have to allow your characters to make mistakes, and when they do so, those choices will have consequences.
Give them an impossible dilemma: there’s a fire and they only have time to save a cat or save a child… The choice they make will not only reveal what kind of person they are, but will be gripping storytelling and the consequences will feed into the story.
Dig into their fears and flaws and exploit them. Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, so guess what he has to confront in the Well of Souls…?
Do they have regrets? Then use these to confront them with the same choice again. What would they do differently this time? And what are the — you guessed it — consequences?
- Use pace and tension to raise the stakes. Don’t bog down action sequences in too much detail, avoid exposition — especially in the climactic act of the story — and keep the prose short and snappy. Your reader will know that they’re on a collision course with the ending and they don’t want any bumps to slow them down.
- Make sure each scene has its own stakes. Each chapter of your story needs to earn its keep. Ask yourself, what’s at stake in this scene? What does each character want in this scene? How does it conflict with what others want? Who stands to lose something? Figure those out and you have some tension to have fun with.
- Have a ticking clock. It doesn’t have to be a literal ticking time bomb, but it helps to have a deadline beyond which things will go badly wrong. Keep reminding us of it, too. Think of Marty McFly checking the fading photo of his family in Back to the Future. Reinforcing the ticking clock raises the stakes and ramps up the tension.
Also consider: the ticking clock your protagonist doesn’t know about! See Alfred Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936) where the audience knows there’s a bomb on the bus, but the characters are blissfully unaware. This scene had cinemagoers yelling at the screen in terror.