We binge-watched three episodes of one of our favorite shows yesterday. Blindspot is an NBC program based on the premise that a tattooed amnesiac is helping the FBI rid the government of corruption. It’s super fake.
What I love most about Blindspot is how they continually raise the stakes. It’s a specific strategy TV writers use to keep you tuned in through the commercial break.
Dismantling a bomb? Great. But what if the clock jumps forward by half because you cut the wrong wire?
Hostage crisis? No problem. But what if there’s also a gas leak in the building?
Raising the stakes means forcing the characters to make a choice they may have otherwise waited out. In everyday life, we wait out choices. We don’t respond to invitations, ignore phone calls, and “wait and see” on just about everything.
Characters can’t afford to wait it out. The reader will put the book down and never pick it back up again. Characters need to move the plot forward to reach its conclusion.
To force the character to make a choice, the writer must raise the stakes. Make it impossible for the character to do nothing. Create the kind of urgency that forces the character to do something, anything, that pushes the plot arc.
One of the easiest ways to raise the stakes is to provide a time limit. Sports are great at this: the clock ticks down, the innings run out, there’s only so much time to make a play.
Another way to raise the stakes is to reveal information that complicates the choice. For example: the main character is refusing to surrender to the villain until the villain shows he’s got someone hostage; now the main character must do whatever she must to keep the hostage safe. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is expecting to become tribute; instead, her sister is selected and Katniss is forced to act in order to save Primrose.
A third way to raise the stakes is to challenge the hero with something he or she cannot do. Have the main character confronted with a puzzle, a challenge, or a seemingly impossible task. The Flash on the CW network does a great job with this. Everything is declared impossible until Barry finds a way to do it.
The best stakes involve the character compromising a bit of herself to get where she’s going. Every time she makes an exception to her values or morals, the audience is primed for her to make it up to them in another scene. She might have to team up with a known enemy, forgive a trespass, or even part with a valuable item. Raise the stakes by having the character put more skin in the game and the payoff will be twice as great when she finally triumphs.
Raising the stakes builds tension in your story, keeps the reader engaged, and shows what lengths your character is willing to go to in pursuit of her goal.