Escalate the stakes to engage the reader

We noted before that the stakes for the protagonist should be stated early.

In the best stories, though, the stakes will change as the story develops. The stakes get higher—at the outset, the heroine might have a promotion on the line, and by midway through her job, and by the end, her life. Yes, it is permissible to have the plot be life-threatening from the outset, but escalating stakes are a valid plot choice as well, and arguably better, because you get the effect of a roller coaster rather than a runaway train.

Either way, it’s best to avoid making the protagonist’s journey too easy. Which brings us to this point:

The character keeps getting into deeper and deeper trouble.

This is sometimes referred to as “one disaster after another,” though ideally you want to reward the reader with some small wins along the way. Raiders of the Lost Ark does this well. Indiana Jones is reunited with Marion (win); she’s kidnapped (disaster). He finds the Ark of the Covenant (win); the Nazis take it away (disaster). You get the idea.

one disaster after another
Give your protagonist one setback after another. Photo © peanut8481 iStockphoto

If every stage of the story is literally setback upon disaster upon tragedy, the reader may get too discouraged to go on. Even Hamlet had a couple of successes before everything went wrong.

Conversely, if your protagonist solves every problem quickly, that diffuses tension. Even if she’s very capable, she needs to have some setbacks once in a while. This is partly for realism—nobody wins everything all the time—but mostly for tension and conflict. Whatever she’s after—whether it’s that promotion or the villain who’s out to kill her—she needs to experience a disaster once in a while to maintain the dramatic conflict. A story about a perfect person who succeeds at absolutely everything will quickly become insufferable because it’s unrealistic, and it also runs the risk of being boring. Which is the last thing you want your story to be.

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