Raising The Stakes by Johanna Harness

14 Sep

As writers, we’re always hearing the importance of raising the stakes.  Not enough tension in a scene?  Raise the stakes.  Midpoint dragging?  Raise the stakes.  Reader doesn’t care about the main character enough?  Raise the stakes.

Like most writing advice, we can hear something so many times that it fails to have any meaning for us anymore.  Not everything can be a life or death situation, right?  And if it is, how do we top that when it’s time to raise the stakes later in the book?  So now it’s life or death for me and my best friend.  In the next scene it’s me, my friend, and the dog.  In the next section, all those plus two more dogs.  Now it’s the two of us, the three dogs, and the orphanage.  Right.  Plus their goldfish.  Fine.  Now are the stakes people happy?


Why?  Because too often we’re looking at public stakes rather than personal stakes.  Instead of asking what will happen to the world around the character, we should be asking what will happen inside the character’s heart, mind, and soul.

And the great thing about this?  Our characters are complex and layered, so there are always ways to increase the stakes.

We should be asking, “What matters most to this character?”

What one thing could you threaten that would make your main character completely wig out?

How has your character structured her life to protect that one thing?  It might be a belief system or a moral code.  It might be a need to nurture those in need. It might be an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

You know your characters better than anyone.  If you really wanted to make them hate you, what buttons would you push?  Could you make them so angry they’d never talk to you again?

Now you’re getting somewhere.

Raise the stakes.


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16 responses to “Raising The Stakes by Johanna Harness

  1. JC Rosen

    September 14, 2011 at 5:18 AM

    Fantastic points, Johanna. You’re right, we do tend to hear the nuggets of writing wisdom too often. Taking a close look at them from time to time can be an eye opener, as your article was for me. Thanks for this. By the way, I love the way you edited the accompanying photo.

    Take care,

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:08 PM

      Thanks, Jess. It’s amazing how many times I can hear advice without really understanding it. I’m glad you liked the picture too. 🙂

  2. Carley Ash

    September 14, 2011 at 6:28 AM

    Thanks Johanna. This is a good reminder about the different types of conflict that can impact our beloved characters.

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:11 PM

      Yes–and our beloved characters can’t really shine without a great deal of it. 🙂

  3. Janis McCurry

    September 14, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    “What matters most to this character?” A perfect way to focus on raising the stakes. Thanks, Johanna.

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:12 PM

      Yes–and sometimes thinking like the bad guy really helps me see what needs to happen.

  4. Meredith Conner

    September 14, 2011 at 7:37 AM

    I always feel so terrible when I raise the stakes. Sometimes I find myself telling the computer “I’m sorry.” But it does make for a better story. Thanks Johanna.

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:16 PM

      I’ve apologized to my characters too. I’m still apologizing to some of them.

  5. Clarissa Southwick

    September 14, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    This is something I struggle with so I appreciate your insight. Thanks for another fantastic post, Johanna!

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:17 PM

      Good thing we also get to make them strong enough to come through it, yeah?

  6. Liz Fredericks

    September 14, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    You have a scary ability to hit the right note for me every single time in these blogs. I needed this reminder. Thank you!

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:18 PM

      That’s funny, Liz. Also? Really cool. 😀

  7. Peggy Staggs

    September 14, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Personal crisis is so important. It is also one of the hardest things to balance in a book. Too much and you wonder how the character can keep going. Too little and you don’t care. Great blog.

    • johannaharness

      September 14, 2011 at 4:20 PM

      True. And the crisis has to fit the story.

  8. Lynn Mapp

    September 14, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    Johanna, thank your for the all important reminder. Gosh, I hate this part of the process. I really, really, don’t want to cause these people pain, but…a writers got to do just that. Yuck.

  9. Marsha R. West

    September 15, 2011 at 9:32 PM

    This was well said, Johanna, but I’m with Lynn. I hate to put them in jeopardy. Loved the last comment about the buttons we’d push to make our characters mad at us. Nice concept.


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