One of my favorite ways to raise the stakes is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me for using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.
Why Establish Ramifications?
We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)
Raise the Stakes To Raise the Tension
So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. The reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Collins has done her job to raise the stakes and our anxiety to sky-high levels. As a result, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation (check out tips for writing a reaction). When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.
Establish Ramifications Early On for Maximum Tension
Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. You’ll raise the stakes because the reader knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. Then it’s all about creating a plot that takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important story tension high!
If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before. Raise the stakes as much as possible, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!
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12 Replies to “Raise the Stakes by Establishing Ramifications”
I’m so glad you posted this. It really helped me change the direction of one of my opening chapters. I like the idea of setting up expectations/consequences ahead of time so the reader knows what is at stake. Very timely! Thanks!
Great example. I’m reading Catching Fire — I delayed it for so long because I didn’t want to rip through the series — and I’m amazed at how well she picks right up into a new adventure without it feeling stale. I mean, what can top almost dying in front of the whole nation? And yet!
Great ideas that I can use in my own fiction book.
“play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!”
Yep, keeping them wanting to turn that page.
Thanks, Mary. I’ve thought a lot about how important it is to make the stakes clear IN the moment, but I’ve never really thought about setting up the stakes well BEFORE the moment. I’m definitely going to try this.
I am really glad that you posted this, especially with the example from Hunger Games. Its a book I have read and loved. Advice we constantly get is, raise the stakes, increase the conflict, but no one talks of establishing ramifications. I am definitely going to try this for my current book.
I thought The Hunger Games were a masterclass in building tension. And now TV reality shows seem sinister to me. I’m just waiting for the presenters to come out with purple hair and green eyebrows and say “May the odds be ever in your favour…..”
What a great post. Definitely something to think about as I’m working on my WIP. Thanks!!
I’ve had this bookmarked since you first posted it. I regularly refer CPs to it and reread it too. “If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!” So straightforward, yet somehow not obvious. Thank you!
Thank you, Mary! Suzanne Collins did a spectacular job at setting up ramifications, at building Katniss as a character we identify with and root for, and at spinning an amazing tale that had this reader hanging on for the entire ride. I had just started to write seriously when I read the Hunger Games trilogy, so I viewed it through the lens of a writer. There are so many amazing lessons we can learn from Suzanne Collins’ writing, that’s for sure!