Raising the Stakes

By DiAnn Mills

To keep readers turning pages, professional writers keep raising the characters’ stakes. This means every line must add tension and conflict to the story. 

So how does a writer build suspense while the story unfolds? The answer is in every line of the story. To ensure a tight, high-stakes scene, use the characters’ fears and weaknesses against him or her. This forces the character not only to struggle, but also to face an inner and outer antagonist. Know the character’s story goal or problem, then show how difficult that quest is through his or her weaknesses.

The following are just a few ways to help raise critical stakes.

Caught in the Crucible

Are the characters caught in the middle of a goal, either mentally or physically, in which both refuse to release the hold? The crucible is greater than the characters’ desires, and neither is willing to give it up.

Choices and Doubts

Have you ever given up on a goal or decided the challenge wasn’t worth the trouble? Considered quitting? Given up for a while? We want our characters to mirror our emotions, and we want them to overcome their fears to succeed.

Consider the choices confronting your character. Have her choose between two rights. Which one? Why? Are you still looking for more conflict? Force your character to choose between two wrongs. Imagine the guilt, the responsibility, the consequences, and the circumstances surrounding her dilemma. Make her life messy, with the storyline and characters believable, but bigger than life.

Chapter hooks are as vital to the story as the hook in the beginning. End each scene with high stakes, an outer or inner struggle that spins with emotion. You’ll keep the reader up all night turning page after page to discover what happens next.


How can a writer seriously affect the plot and the characters’ lives? This could be done by:

  • New information
  • Unexpected complications
  • Eliminating a character
  • Changing the setting

A “Whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” scene foils readers who think they can read the beginning of a novel then skip to the climax and resolution.

Sol Stein suggests raising the stakes by giving characters opposing scripts. In other words, two characters have different agendas. They enter a scene with their own goals in mind—and miscommunication sizzles. Try this and watch the sparks fly.


Readers want to know what a character is feeling. A character’s personality dictates reactions, and the greatest emotion comes from facing a conflict head on. This is another area where word choice and body language collide into suspense.

Imagine a scene where a character’s loved family member is in danger. The character’s emotions are on one level, while the logical side of the character must find a way to remove the danger.

Point of View

The point of view selected by the writer is crucial to the story’s premise, growth and change of the character, conflict and suspense, which all means higher stakes. The POV choice is best made by “who has the most to lose” in a scene. The person who has the highest stakes will be the one the reader bonds with and cheerleads.


Provide the character with more than one role and make life difficult for the protagonist (and sometimes the antagonist). The higher the stakes, the more a character will risk to reach her goal.

Don’t cheat the reader by failing to use every ounce of emotion and action to build higher stakes.


Tension and suspense explode when a setting is unfamiliar and hostile, and it forces the character to grow. How does a writer accomplish an antagonistic setting? Begin by concentrating on a few traits of a villain: determined, powerful, an outward appearance of beauty or charm, and the ability to deceive. The adversity of setting can be obvious or hidden, but include it in ways that force the character to make tough decisions and then accept responsibility for those actions.   

Raising the Stakes is not an engine additive to a story. It’s a process that begins long before the first line is written. It’s a mindset that influences every technique of novel writing and coincides with character traits. Look at your story. Where can you Raise the Stakes?

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian Fiction category for Firewall. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of The Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference and The Author Roadmap with social media specialist Edie Melson where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country, is very active online, and would love to connect with readers on any of the social media platforms listed at www.diannmills.com.

To learn more about her upcoming thriller, Deep Extraction, click on the cover below: