Raising the Stakes

You know that moment you find a book or a television show you like, and when you watch it for the first time, you think it’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen? I felt that way about the old show, Tru Calling (canceled way before its time). I decided to show it to Alex today, but when we watched the first episode, I realized it wasn’t as exciting to start as I thought it was. Since Alex was bored, I skipped ahead to where Jack makes his first real appearance, and suddenly remembered why I fell in love with the show.

The issue wasn’t that Tru’s story wasn’t interesting in itself. It was, but adding the Jack element made the story more interesting because it raised the stakes.

Thinking about this makes me realize the distinction between a seen and an unseen adversary. We love villains. Whether we love to hate them or hate to love them, villains are the sugar in our proverbial coffee. Unseen adversaries like society, fate, internal conflict, and the environment are great. But people can’t connect to these things in the way they can connect to a human enemy.

Taking a page out of Tru Calling’s book (which probably isn’t the best idea, seeing as it only lasted a season and a half), the best way to make a story more interesting is to raise the stakes by adding elements of conflict. While Tru starts with the already hefty conflict with society, her story is made much juicier when she must also contend with Jack.

The question then becomes: how and when should I introduce this secondary conflict? That answer depends on the story you want to tell. Generally speaking, though, it should fall somewhere that fits with the pacing of the story. If the secondary conflict is ¬†introduced too late in the plot, it will rush your ending. Too early, and it may slow you down or confuse your readers. There’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, and it will make itself heard when you find it.

How do you raise the stakes in your stories?

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