As writers, one of our biggest jobs — nay, the biggest job — we face is engaging our readers: getting them to root for, worry about, and get emotionally angsty about our characters. We want them to feel our characters’ pain, which means we need to rough up our characters and make their lives difficult.
One of the most compelling ways to get our readers hooked is by raising the stakes in our stories: coming up with situations that prove to be more dangerous or complex than our readers thought they were. In an online article for Writer’s Market, Robert Lee Brewer offered three strategies for upping the ante in fiction:
Keep characters on the run: Creating some form of a chase can be a great way to keep readers involved in virtually any genre, from romance to suspense. Sustaining a pursuit for most of a book helps give a story focus and propel it forward. Whether the pursuit ends with a protagonist and antagonist battling it out or with the guy getting the girl (or vice versa), an intense chase scenario adds motivation and spice to a story.
Make small victories elusive: It’s a wise move take your readers on an emotional roller coaster ride by letting your characters experience a mix of success and failure. Giving your characters small victories helps keep a story moving — and one very effective way to raise the stakes is to snatch these small victories away. Letting a spy find a contact only to bump him off before he reveals anything is a great example of allowing a character to achieve a goal only to have that goal evaporate. These little ups and downs keep a story moving.
Reveal information cunningly: If you reveal everything about a character upfront, there are no surprises for the reader and a story can feel flat. The antidote: Be cagey about how and when you give your readers tantalizing tidbits of story and character background. Feeding your readers small revelations about characters and plot can boost reader involvement and help raise the stakes by allowing the reader to experience surprise and a sense of discovery. For instance, you might conceal the motivation of a secondary character throughout most of your story and reveal this through an exciting plot twist.
I like the idea of raising the stakes, both for us as writers and for our readers. A story where nothing is at stake — where nothing is risked or revealed — is one-dimensional. A story where the stakes are high — where what happens really matters — has a far better chance of being great fiction. Write on!