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.
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.