Tips on Upping The Stakes

It’s always great when we get Suspense & Thriller authors dropping in at The Bookshelf Muse, and today José Bográn is here to talk about upping the stakes. Creating and the escalating the stakes is something we all need to learn to do well regardless of the genre we write, because of the huge competition for our audience’s attention. We live in a world of intense, high-action blockbuster movies, runaway TV hits like Dexter and Breaking Bad, and of course a social networking/texting/internet surfing culture that makes it difficult to unplug enough to pick up a book.

Upping The Stakes: How High Is High Enough?

When asked what “upping the stakes” mean, most writing class teachers will point out that classic example of the man atop the tree who can’t get down because there are lions prowling around the base. I’m here to tell you the lions at the base will not cut it nowadays. You need to add killer birds, or a hive of mutated bees, or perhaps a pterodactyl. And you know you don’t have to stop there. How about making the tree a slippery little bastard, or burden the man with sweaty palms, or tired arms and legs? In short, you need another life-threat at the top so the man can’t go in either direction, but also he can’t stay there.

Now, don’t go exposing all the threats on the first page because it would turn the reader off. The best way to explain why not lies in a piece of dialog uttered by Pierce Brosnan in the epic volcano thriller Dante’s Peak:

          Harry Dalton: My 9th grade science teacher always said that if you put a frog in boiling hot water, it would jump out. But put it in cold water, and heat it up gradually, it would slowly boil to death.

           Nancy: What’s that Harry? Your recipe for frog soup?

          Harry Dalton: It’s my recipe for a disaster.

If you layer your troubles, exposing one at time in the same manner as the water is slowly heating to cook the frog, you serve a two-fold purpose since the piling up will also provide a sense of pace, a rhythm.

The other word to define the process would be “escalation.” Sounds like a change from failed diplomacy actions into hard military deployment, don’t you think?

Let’s consider, for example, one of my favorite novels, The Godfather by Mario Puzo. The novel begins in the happiest of circumstances: a wedding. We learn there are three rather small and diverse problems:

  • We have the baker who wants a resident’s visa for the immigrant who got his daughter pregnant—see how generous the baker was? Other father would have first considered taking the “gunshot option.”
  • The undertaker who wants to avenge the beating of his child by a group of rich hoodlums, and
  • The has-been singer and actor who won’t get a coveted movie role because he saw fit to enamor a young starlet that the chief of the movie studio was reserving for himself.

The actions taken to solve these issues serve to establish the varied and deep power of The Don. Then, as we get into the story we witness an attempt on his life, the war of the Five Families, a couple of nasty betrayals, all to culminate with the perpetuation of a Don for the new generation.

The reasoning of adding more problems is hardly reserved to the suspense genre, nor hardly new for that matter. Take a look at the 200 year old novel, Pride and Prejudice. It began with a mother’s simple task to get her daughters into good marriages. And just when the eldest was a kiss away from the altar, conniving would-be in-laws managed to split the happy couple. Then the second one begins a journey of discovery when the person she hates the most proposes to her. Twice. Then the third daughter—or was it the fourth?—runs away to elope. Common as it maybe nowadays, eloping was the epitome of a family’s disgrace two hundred years ago.

Now let’s apply this to your manuscript. Concentrate on the list of problems your characters are facing. Are they enough? Are you sure they are enough? Short of killing them off halfway through the book, what else can you hit your lead character with?

You’ve heard that ideas come from asking the question, “What if?” That’s a great start to a story. I use it all the time. A good companion to that question is, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

I bet that through a combination of What-ifs and Worst-case-scenarios you can up your story to unforeseen levels. Trust me.


After losing his wife and son in an air crash, Sebastian Martin is spiraling downward into alcoholic oblivion. When his last-chance job investigating insurance fraud takes a deadly turn, he faces torture at the hands of a former KGB trainee. 

Add FIREFALL to your Goodreads list!  
Follow José on TWITTER, FACEBOOK & visit his WEBSITE

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild and the International Thriller Writers where he also serves as the Thriller Roundtable Coordinator and contributor editor their official e-zine The Big Thrill.


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Characters, Guest Post, High Stakes, Uncategorized, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Tips on Upping The Stakes

  1. Great tips. I have a tendency to *mother* my character and I really need to treat her worse, much, much worse. Sigh, back to the revisions…

  2. And we have a winner!
    Brian just got a copy in his email inbox of my novel Firefall.

    Thank you all for the comments.


  3. Suzane, thanks for the wishes.

    Geoff, glad you liked the escalating catastrophes. Loved that term.

    Shah, yes, you can take it and run with it in any direction. That’s the beauty of writing stories. You get to be boss.

    Nik, I’ve visited your blog. It’s a treasure trove of writing tips.

    Carol, feel free to turn those screws. The characters may not thank you for it, but readers will.

    Tami, Thanks for stopping by. Agree on DC not handling the fun parts good. At least his action scenes are not in-your-face CGI (which I hated from the last Brosnan)

  4. Tami says:

    Thanks for the great post and reminding me to think ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’. It’s easy to get involved in the lions and forget to dig deeper (climb higher?). I agree that Pierce Brosnan was a great Bond. Daniel doesn’t play the tongue-in-cheek parts well – far too serious and dramatic.

  5. Carol Riggs says:

    Definitely excellent advice! I like the idea of layering rather than hitting the reader with ALL the problems. I think I’m too nice to my characters sometimes, and don’t turn the screws on ’em quite enough. 🙂

  6. Nik says:

    Excellent advice,Jose. Indeed, layering should be used for many things, not only creating conflict – such as description, atmosphere, character, done at the rewrite stages. I’ve bought The Emotion Thesaurus (after selling 20 books!) and have mentioned it in my blog

  7. Shah Wharton says:

    I liked how in the American Psycho, the worst thing that happened to a psychopath when admitting his homicidal behaviours, was to be ignored. You can take worst case scenarios everywhere – love it!

    The book sounds awesome BTW. *Wink!

  8. Geoff Hughes says:

    Great post Jose, I like the idea of escalating catastrophes. What’s the worse that can happen? Plenty! You might have just dug me out of hole with my current project. Thanks!

  9. Great guest post. Best wishes with Firefall, Jose.

  10. Laura, Ruby, Linda, Jemi and Rosi, I am glad that something of what I’ve learned along the path to publication has found its way to you. May it serve you well.

    Jodie, yeah, almost feels like we have a double-standard. Almost. 🙂

  11. Rosi says:

    Thanks for a very useful post. This is something I need to work on in my WIP.

  12. Great post, Jose! And I really like your examples!

    Strange how in life we’re always seeking harmony, peace, and happiness, while when writing fiction we’re always scheming about how much worse we can make things for our poor protagonist! LOL

  13. Jemi Fraser says:

    Great advice – I’m working on improving this in my current rewrite so great timing for me!

  14. Linda A. says:

    I appreciate the reminder to think about what’s the worst thing that could happen, not just “What if?”

  15. Ruby says:

    Thanks for the great post. I can see my hero, who has been chased up the tree, needs more than a few rocks thrown at him. He needs a flimsy limb which is about to break.

  16. I love the question: What’s the worst that can happen. Will be applying that to my current novel. Great advice!

  17. Thanks, Becca. Like I said, loved that book.

    Brian, wonderful way to systematically close all the doors to the lead until he/she has to go where you want, or not.

    Angela, in addition to the frog reference, I enjoyed that movie very much. I still think PB made an excellent James Bond.

    Southpaw, sorry to hear it, but thanks for trying again.

  18. LOL, Southpaw. Been there, trust me!

    I am a fan of the Frog reference as well, because it’s so true. I think by turning up the intensity and pressure in a pattern of small increments that eventually leads to bigger ones, we can really pull the reader in so deep they are helpless to do anything else but ride shotgun to the hero!

  19. Southpaw says:

    Stupid Blogger ate my comment. It was the best comment I’d ever written too – probably the best you’d have ever read. But now I can’t remember what I wrote.

    Great advice!

  20. Angela Brown says:

    I’ve always loved that “frog and boiling water” reference. I can apply to so many aspects in life. But it really does well in novels as the reader enjoys the steady escalation of the stakes. That is definitely a wise way to approach raising the stakes.

  21. Brian J says:

    Great tips! For raising the stakes I like to find out what my lead character will never do (murder for instance) then push and push and push until murder is the only option. Sometimes they do it, sometimes they don’t, but it makes for a good read.

  22. Love these suggestions! The Godfather is a fabulous example of how layered stakes can really add to a story. Thanks so much for the tips!

  23. Let me start by thanking Becca and Angela for inviting me to share my thoughts on this subject.

    As a thriller writer, upping the game is always in the to-do-list.

    Wendy, thanks for the comment.
    Janet, glad you found the post useful.
    Kessie, great way of putting it. Love it.

  24. Kessie says:

    Good advice! James Scott Bell says that death must always be on the line, whether its physical, emotional or psychological. I’m not happy with a story unless I’m writing all three. 🙂

  25. I’m always asking ‘what if?’, but haven’t tried ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I’ll have to give that a try. Good post. Janet

  26. Hmm… multi-problems. I think I shall have to go back to the story I’m writing and add in a few more. Thanks for a great guest post, Jose.

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