Want High Stakes? Amp up the Stress!

stressIn the real world, we avoid stress whenever possible but in writing, the opposite is true. Why? Because in the land of the Three Act Structure (TAS), STRESS = CONFLICT.

In the TAS, our main character has a need or desire which outside forces try to prevent, challenging him to overcome adversity to achieve his goal. Sounds like a nice, simple formula, doesn’t it? However, without the critical element of STRESS, the storyline falls flat.

Little Johnny wants a cupcake. His mother says no. He waits until she turns her back and then takes one anyway.

Can you see it? No Stress = BORING. Johnny wants something, but he isn’t stressed about it. The reader could care less whether he achieves his goal or not, because the stakes are nonexistent.

But let’s look again, this time applying factors to cause stress:

Little Johnny has diabetes, and hypoglycemia is setting in. He doesn’t want that cupcake, he freaking needs that cupcake. He’s shaky, sweating, and his limbs aren’t cooperating like they should, and he knows that if he doesn’t get sugar STAT, it’ll be lights out.

As readers, this situation has our blood boiling. Mom’s obviously sadistic, not handing the sweet over. If it was up to us, we’d call Social Services and cheer as she’s charged with neglect and failing to provide the necessities of life. Sadly, it isn’t up to us, so all we can do is watch, helpless, and pray Johnny is strong enough to figure out what to do.

The application of stress has achieved something incredible: the reader now cares about Johnny. They are invested in his situation and riveted on the outcome. 

With the stress level maxed, the stage is set for action. The stakes are high. What will Johnny do to survive? How will he overcome his weakness and defeat this older, stronger mother-villain? How will he push aside the emotional connection of being her son to save his own life?

It doesn’t matter what the situation is, STRESS is what pushes your main character to ACT. It can force them to go against their own nature or beliefs, to meet challenges, overcome obstacles and face danger. Stress creates tension, which leads to conflict, so don’t be afraid to amp up the stress. The higher the stress, the more elevated the stakes are, laying the groundwork for a compelling story that will captivate your reader and make them feel invested in the outcome.

Emotion Amplifiers High ResWant to know how to better show Stress Through Your Character’s Body Language? There’s a book for that. And it’s only .99 cents. Check out the “Stress” entry in out free Emotion Thesaurus companion booklet, Emotion Amplifiers.

Image: Alexis @ Pixabay


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Characters, Conflict, High Stakes, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Want High Stakes? Amp up the Stress!

  1. dita says:

    Wow , i didn’t think that stres has such an important role .

  2. Lydia K says:

    Stress in life, not good.
    Stress in story, VERY good!

  3. Jaleh D says:

    That’s sort of funny. Stress makes for better writing even if we’d rather have less of it in our lives. Stress about the current weather conditions is what led to my post about snow, so that would be an example of using stress in a creative way, even if not the one you meant. ;p

  4. This is brilliant, Angela. I’ve been working to amp up the stress in my MS, so this is perfect timing for me. 🙂

  5. Carol Riggs says:

    Great point. I constantly have to asses my ms as to how much stress or conflict certain parts have. A little break is good sometimes too, in between the spikes and peaks of undue stress. It lets the reader rest and makes the peaks seem higher.

  6. Jayne says:

    Aw poor stressed characters! But yes, we want some sort of dramatic tension, even if it is the quiet internal kind where the characters’ go on a journey of self-discovery.

  7. Beth says:

    Great suggestions. When I fall in love with my characters, it’s hard to subject them to stress. But it’s the only thing that makes a story work.

  8. Very helpful as always. 😀

    Btw, that picture looks like me in the morning when I get the kids ready for school.

  9. Excellent post. I think some writers get so attached to their characters they don’t want to be mean to them. But stress sure is what makes a story.

  10. Nathalie says:

    How true! I love the example you used with little Johnny. How two similar paragraphs can impact a person so differently!

    I know myself, I get so caught up with ‘conflict’ I forget about the stress invloved. Thanks for the great post.

  11. aquafortis says:

    Agreed w/C.N. – the picture of Fry did it for me, too! 🙂

    Great example. I was just thinking about this topic–specifically, how much I dislike it when an author uses animals-in-danger to increase the stakes. It gets so I hate to even SEE a pet appear in a stressful story, lest something horrible happen. Plus it makes me feel like the author is manipulating my emotions. There are a lot of other ways to increase tension in a story!!

  12. Julie Musil says:

    It took me a little while before I was comfortable with stressing out my characters. Now I keep a list of potential rocks I can throw. Great stuff!

  13. Mary Witzl says:

    This is so true. Two years ago, I read a book for adults that had so little stress in it and people who were all so nice to each other, I could barely get through it. I’m not asking for cookie cutter villains or endless bad luck, but a little stress there would have made the story so much better.

  14. Oh, man. This is a basic lesson, and one it never hurts to relearn. I’ve done whole series on stress (tension and conflict), but reading this post gave me a brainwave: a great way to help make my heroine more sympathetic!

  15. Melissa Gill says:

    Loved your example or how to push the stress up. I wonder if people love to read about stressed out folks as a way of transferring their own stress.

  16. LOL, awesome pic! So true about conflict. I have to remind myself this sometimes, and that it’s for the best in the long run.

    Your characters will thank you!

  17. Patti says:

    Great post on how to up the ante of your characters and plot.

  18. Such a great reminder. I’m too easy on my characters.

  19. JEFritz says:

    I never thought about the importance of stress in writing! Thanks for the tip. Ideas are now flooding my head.

  20. Yup, conflict and stress really adds to the book. Took me a while to realise it but my work is hundreds of times better now 🙂 can’t be nice all the time!

    The Arrival, Book One of the BirthRight Trilogy. On Amazon 1.1.2011

  21. So true! I think we forget sometimes to ramp up the stakes in the little moments!

  22. C.R. Evers says:

    awesome post. Well put!

  23. Stress really does make a story a lot better; higher stakes and more tension are important for keeping the reader’s attention.

  24. AubrieAnne says:

    I never thought of it that way. The fact that what our characters face is stress just like we face everyday. Thanks for the article. It was a great read today.

  25. I love this article. I am playing the 1000 question game this week & this article sets the pace for what I am looking for. Thanks so much.

  26. Heather says:

    So true, stress adds wonderful things to a novel. I love taking all my stress and dumping it into my characters. It makes the story much more interesting and helps me out in the process!

  27. Great illustration, especially how upping the stakes makes readers invest more.

  28. Pk Hrezo says:

    *click* and the lightbulb in my head comes on.

    Thanks! 🙂

  29. Kelly says:

    Great example! Thankfully my characters are more stressed than I am!

  30. C. N. Nevets says:

    Great post, but I think even just the title plus the picture of Fry cemented the point in my mind. Excellent. 🙂

  31. Deb says:

    Oh. Wow. Loved this post! Short, sweet and oh to the point!

    Thank you…and ah, yeah…this is the second post I’ve read that involved cupcakes.

    Now I have to have one, who knew blog reading could be so fattening?! Talk about stress, man….

  32. LOL first off, I LOVE the pic. Also, great post. 😀 I’m surprised my characters don’t suffer from high blood pressure simply from the amount of stress I put them through. But it’s oh so much fun!

  33. It’s kind of funny how we stress for no stress in our real lives but in the writing world we seeks it out.

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