It’s easy to add in a few action sequences to get your story moving, but without raising the stakes for your protagonist, the story might still fall flat.
I’m working on the second draft of my urban-fantasy, pulp novella, and unfortunately, I’ve had to reconstruct the entire last quarter of the story. (You know, the part that includes rise to the climax and the climax. No big deal, right?)
This is a pulp novel, meaning it requires fast pacing and a plethora of action sequences. Because I’m rewriting the last four chapters, I’m having to start over with my writing process. I’ve practically been writing each chapter from scratch and pulling out bits and pieces from the old chapters. As usual, my first attempts at writing any scene involve basically dialogue and a bit of stage directions. As I’ve been looking over each of the chapters, I’ve been telling myself, “This is pulp. Add some action.”
Technically, it’s a savvy statement. Pulp needs action or it isn’t pulp.
Today, I discovered a colossal difference between just adding in random action scenes and actually raising the stakes for the protagonist. With action scenes, my protagonist is running around from one scene to another without any glue and without any raised tension. It gets kind of boring after a while. (My rule: If I’m bored with the book on the first and second run through, then my reader is bound to get bored with the book.)
Raising the stakes is much different than adding in action scenes. It means increasing the protagonist’s danger and risk as the story moves forward. It means each chapter not only brings action, but also brings a sense of impending doom if the protagonist fails at his or her mission. (It means I have to go back through the first eight chapters and add in a few things.)
It also means, however, that I now have a more cohesive web of intrigue my characters must weave through. It makes my action scenes feel less random and more purposeful. It gives my story the glue it needs to stick together. It tightens my story.
Here are a few ways you can raise the stakes in your story:
- Add in a time element. Example, if they don’t reach the bomb in two hours, it will explode. (Romances use the impending wedding the same way action writers use bombs. If the boy doesn’t stop the wedding, he loses the girl forever.)
- Have your villain become more powerful and/or more deadly with each passing moment. Each day a serial killer is on the loose is a day he can murder someone else. With each day a kidnapped victim is missing, the chances of rescue diminish. Your magical villain might gain power by absorbing it from others. Your brilliant mad scientist might only need a bit more time to create the bio-weapon we’ve all been dreading.
- You villain might taunt your protagonist by hurting others. It’s the classic superhero plot.
- With each chapter, your protagonist might discover new evidence of a far-reaching heist, crime, or impending terrorist attack. Your detective might discover your villain isn’t just looking to steal from a bank but to knock out the financial systems in half the world in order to give another country power.
Each story is different. Increasing the stakes in my novella involves me adding in a bit of all of those throughout the story until they all come to a head at the climax. You might have to try something different.
How about you? How have you increased the stakes in your stories?