Let the fight begin! How to use stakes and motivations to build a powerful story!

Last week we talked about how to discover  Stakes and Motivations.  But, how do you use them to create a powerful story? 

 Let the Fight Begin!

 One of my favorite movies for continually raising stakes and forcing the viewer to the edge of her seat is the thriller, Cellular. Just to recap, in a nutshell, it’s a movie about a woman who is kidnapped. She uses a demolished phone to call for help and gets hold of a young man whose girlfriend has broken up with him because of his irresponsibility. A deadline of sorts hangs over their conversation (an essential element in any suspense), because, at any moment, they could get cut off, and she may never be able to dial out again. She must convince this random guy to help her. He eventually gets involved to the point where he begins to break the law and risk his life to save her.

             Why does he do all this for someone he doesn’t know? It’s certainly not to prove he’s responsible. He actually doesn’t agree with the accusation by his girlfriend. So what makes this free-living guy care enough about a stranger to help her?

 The answer is found in the rising balance of story stakes and motivation.  Or…the Push-Pull.

             We learned about the different kind of kind of stakes: public and private. Now as you lay out the stakes, you’re going to make them fit your story. 

 First, you’ll make sure they are in Proportion to the challenges before the hero. If the stakes are too great, the hero will simply give up.

             For example, by the end of Cellular, the hero is taking on bad cops in the LA police department who are trying to kill him. If he knew at the beginning of the movie what he’d be facing in the end, he would have hung up the phone in an instant. But in the beginning of Cellular, only the life of the woman is at risk – and frankly our hero doesn’t even believe her. All that is at stake for him is that he’ll be late running an errand for a friend. (Thus cementing the idea he’s irresponsible). The stakes are miniscule, and he doesn’t need much private motivation to overcome them. 

 He takes his cell phone to the police station rather dubiously, and is told he has to take the phone to the next floor. He’s losing reception on the phone when he hears her being attacked. Suddenly, the stakes are raised. The woman’s life really could be in danger. Suddenly we’re beginning to tap into his values (responsibility). He isn’t going to let the phone go dead.

 Now what? The author raises the stakes to a new level. The woman’s son is threatened. The hero makes a heroic choice (one step above his primal instincts) when he decides he must race to the school to find the boy…only to have school let out a sea of khaki and blue shirt clad ten- year-old boys. He is too late to reach the child, and watches him get kidnapped.

New Stake: The child has been kidnapped by thugs. It is met with the new Motivation: A child’s life is in danger, and the hero didn’t reach him in time, thus he feels responsible. Our hero makes yet another heroic choice when he races after the bad guys, all the while dodging traffic.

Then the cell phone battery begins to die. It’s yet another stake in the story, compounded by the fact that he’s lost the bad guys. In that moment, our hero makes a pivotal choice to hold up a cell phone store for a battery charger, crossing the line to a point of no return.


Because the stakes have been raised. His belief that now two lives are at stake, and that only he can help (Why!), trumps the challenges before him. If he’d, say, grabbed the plate number, and called it into the police, or believed that the victim might call someone else for help, he might not have had sufficient motivation or belief in the stakes to confront the challenges before him.

Now that the motivation – that only he can help – have been raised to meet the stakes – the two lives on the line – the author raises the stakes yet again, threatening the husband. And after our hero has conquered the challenge of saving the husband…the author raises them again with a final stake – good against evil.

The key element here is the harder a character has to fight to win the day, and the more he has to fight for, the stronger the reader will stay hooked to the story. But each rising stake in the story must be in proportion to the motivation the character has to overcome it.

The second element to weaving stakes into your story is to create Believability. If, say, our hero was suddenly being chased down the street by a tank, in the middle of LA, well, we might react the same we did to crazy movies like Volcano. But even in Independence Day, we believed each outrageous stake because they’d gradually brought in the aliens and destroyed the cities in a way that seemed plausible.

Every increasing stake in Cellular is believable, or explained easily away, from losing reception (he is in an old building with cement walls), to why he can’t rescue the child (the kids are all in uniform, and the school lets out just as he arrives, into a flood of blue-shirted tykes). As you create your stakes, make sure there is one simple, believable explanation for that rising stake.

The final key in keeping your plot riveting is Balance. The stakes must rise in rhythm to the motivations. If you raise two or three stakes at once, then you need to ensure the motivations are strong enough to overcome it.

For example, in Cellular, if our hero’s cell phone battery was dying, someone was shooting at him, and he got into a car accident and broke his arm all at once without stopping to insert rising motivations, he might throw in the towel. His motivation just wouldn’t be great enough to face those cascading stakes. However, if the bad guys got a glimpse of him, and promised to go after someone he loved, he might find the strength to dig himself out of the rubble.

Make sure that you’re balancing those stakes with motivations in a rhythm that keeps your hero moving forward instead of crushing him. And remember – the higher the stakes and the faster they pile up, the more tense the story. So, it behooves the author to save those techniques until the end of your story.

You’ll notice too, that each time a stake is raised, he becomes more heroic. His actions are less and less about himself and more ultraistic.

Proportion, Believability and Balance are the keys to propelling your character through a story, over obstacles and challenges and even to the point of your hero risking it all for a stranger and becoming an ultimate hero.

Let’s revisit motivation for movement, the PUSH-PULL. 

Remember: for every scene, and every motivation you have, you’ll need two things….a Push AWAY from their current situation and a PULL Towards the situation.   

Going back to Cellular – the Push is often his own failure – the Pull is the threat of someone getting hurt.   But the Push can often be his victory, too.  You just need to make sure you have both in order to keep the momentum going forward.

Tomorrow we’re going to talk about heroism, and how to build that into the stakes and motivations of the story. 

Susie May

Creating a Push-Pull Motivation for your suspense scenes


Yesterday, we talked about the use of Public and Private Stakes to raise the epic element of your suspense, and drive your reader through the story.  But that is only one part of the equation.  You need motivation as well. 

 You need to employ something I call the PUSH-PULL. 

 Let’s start at the beginning of the story:  Your character will need a motivation to start them on their journey.  Some Why and What do they want?    This is easy – you simply take a look at their greatest dreams and give them glimpse of hope that they can achieve them early on in the story. 

 But that’s when things get tough.  See, on every great journey, there is conflict – or obstacles along the way.  And your character will be tempted to give up.  They need to have a Push-Pull at the beginning of every scene to help them face that obstacle.  

Every scene has to have an emotional or physical push/pull (or combination thereof).   It’s the PUSH away from something negative, and the PULL toward something positive. 


Think of it this way – there has to be a reason for them to leave the current situation they are in.  It might be that the roof will cave in, or it might be emotional – saying “I love you” to someone before they walk away.  Whatever is a stronger Push out of their current situation is the key to building the motivation for that scene. 


There also must be a hint of why, of a reward on the other side of the obstacle.  A Pull.  Sometimes it’s simply a safer place where they are now.  Maybe it’s a hint of the happy ending.  Whatever it is, it’s the second half of the motivation equation. 


Yesterday I talked about the movie Unstoppable and how it needed personal stakes in the story.  It also could have used more Push-Pull.   Yes, I understood that the older railroad man wanted to prove that he wasn’t useless anymore, and that the younger conductor wanted to prove that he was worthy of his job, but as we drew closer to the obstacles, the push-pull waned, and only the public stakes kept the story moving forward.  

 The Push-Pull equation also helps develop a more heroic character.  Most of all, if you use the Push-Pull method, you’ll never have someone throwing your book across the room. 

 A great story requires a careful balance of rising story stakes and strengthening motivations not unlike the rhythm of the one–two punch. They work together to create a can’t-put-it-down novel.


Book Therapist questions:   

ü  What is at stake in your scene? 


ü  What is the motivation to overcome the stakes? 


ü  What is the Push-Pull?


 I have a rule of thumb: Every 50 pages, I raise the stakes. That’s about every 10,000-12,000 words. Or every three or four chapters. Using the plotting chart, and starting with the inciting incident, chart the rhythm of stakes and motivation in your story. Don’t forget to make your hero more heroic with each decision!

If you have questions, head over to the MBT Club Voices, www.mybooktherapy.ning.com and join in on the suspense discussion!

I’m headed to Florida for the Deep Thinker’s Retreat!  It’s 17 degrees where I live today.  Just sayin’

Keep warm!

Susie May


“I couldn’t put it down!” Using Stakes and Motivations to build riveting suspense!

Unstoppable Movie PostersI saw two suspense movies this weekend:  I am Number Four and Unstoppable.  Both were enjoyable – both captured my attention and moved me into the story.  But neither of were epic.  Neither  of them made me care, rooted me to my seat in fear, or made me jump from it yelling. 




Because they both lacked the key elements of Stake and Motivation.


The key to a great story is the combination of both, and this is the third element needed in a great suspense. 


            In a riveting suspense, there is always a rising interplay of balance between the motivation and stakes of the story.  As things get worse, and their fears grow, so also do their motivations to defeat the fears. 


Let’s start with Stakes:


Why should a reader pick up your book? Why should they care about your story?




The Stakes are the key to any winning story – the higher the stakes, the more epic a story. Another way to look at it is…what will happen if the hero fails his quest? Mordor will take over Middle Earth. The Empire will prevail. The aliens will take over the planet.


But not all stories can have world destruction at the core of their plot. Maybe the story is simply about finding or losing your true love. The Princess Bride. Sleepless in Seattle. While You Were Sleeping.


The key isn’t how big the stakes are, but how deeply they hit home with the reader. The more personal the stakes, the more they resonate at our core, the more we will not only believe them, but embrace them. Stakes can be used as motivation to drive a reader through the story, and turned into obstacles to give your reader and your character “something to fight for.”


Stakes can be public (affecting society, like in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Hunt for Red October, or even Erin Brockovich), or private (as in some of my favorites: Frequency, Cellular, or even the poignant Somersby). The important element is: If the stakes matter to you, they’ll matter to your readers.


Public Stakes


Public stakes have much to do with public values. For example, during World War Two (WWII), the public value was very much protecting our country and banding together to fight the wars. So, stories about espionage and battle were popular stakes in books and movies.


However, as time has changed, so have our values.


Today, personal freedom and family have taken over as the chief collective stakes of today. We still have issues of national security (which is why shows like 24 are so popular). But even within those issues, it is shows like Army Wives, which focus on the personal life behind the war that captures people. When stakes involve our freedoms and safety as Americans, or members of a family, it makes for a compelling story.


One of my favorite uses of public stakes is Outbreak.  A story about the ebola virus breaking out in a small community and the government’s decision to bomb the community.  We care about he faces in the community, but we also care about the bigger picture – could the government do this to our community? 


A story stake that had, for example, saving the shoppers in a mall from a terrorist’s bomb, or keeping a disease from becoming an epidemic and sweeping across the nation would be a current public stake.


Ask: What matters to me? If it matters to you, then it matters to others. What’s the worst thing you could think of happening to you? Others will fear that also. And that’s where you find your Public Stakes.


Public Stakes are key to engage the reader on an epic level.  But to engage their heart, you need Private Stakes.  Take, for example, a World War 2 moive –


Saving Private Ryan, or Pearl Harbor.   They are excellent public stakes movies, but to really make them powerful, the writers  added an element of personal staks.  In Saving Private Ryan, even the main character – Tom Hanks – realizes the power of family within the great backdrop of the war as he fights to bring home Private Ryan to his devastated mother.


Private Stakes can be used to propel the entire story, also.  They might affect only one family.  Perhaps it’s the story of a child that is kidnapped, or one of my favorite episodes of Little House on the Prairie: Laura and the Horse race.


Who can forget the story of Laura Ingalls, where she rides her horse Bunny in a race against Nellie? Evil Nellie hates that Laura has a horse, and persuades her mother to buy her a fancy horse from Mankato. Laura’s horse doesn’t have a chance in the race against this thoroughbred. What’s worse, Mrs. Olsen mocks Caroline for being poor and refuses to sell her shoes for her children until she has cash. If Laura can win the race, she’ll receive a prize that she can use to pay for the shoes. She trains Bunny and is ready for the big race when Willie (Nellie’s brother) gets sick. No one is around, so Laura has to make a choice: Ride Bunny to fetch the doctor and risk the horse being too tired to run the race, or let Willie suffer. What will she do?


We care about the outcome of this story because it has tapped into our values of family honor and compassion.


These are Private Stakes.


Private stakes can be found in the root of our values. The things that drive us, or the things we long for. Laura longed to show up Nellie, and to help her parents. But she also knew that to be true to who she was, she had to be compassionate. When we tap into our private stakes, it touches the core of our characters, and our readers, and gives them as reason to fight. You know I was sitting on the edge of the sofa, (or more likely standing up, cheering) as Laura ran the race with Bunny.



How do you find those Private Stakes of your character? Here are some simple Book Therapist questions.


ü  What matters most to him in life?


ü  What would he avoid at all costs, and why?


ü  What are his goals, and why?



As you interview your character and plot your story, see if you can discover the Stakes of the story.


You will use both Public Stakes and Private Stakes as fodder to create obstacles and motivations for your character as you plot your storyline.


In Unstoppable, although it contained powerful Public Stakes, (to stop a speeding train headed toward Scranton) they weren’t enough to make me care.  Sure, a train derailing is a big deal…but what if it is right next to a school?  And a school where the character’s son attended?  What if we make it personal?


In I am Number Four (which, by the way, I thoroughly enjoyed!), I didn’t understand the Public Stakes.  Sure, there were bad guys that wanted to take over the world, but I didn’t believe it, and I didn’t understand how or why they wanted our world.  If they were going to use Public Stakes, then they needed to make them believable (something we’ll get into tomorrow!)


Discovering the Public and Private Stakes are only the first step in creating a compelling story.


The next element is the motivation to overcome. 


Tomorrow we’ll talk about Motivation, and how to create the right combination to compel your hero to face the obstacles before him.  

If you’re interested in chatting about Stakes versus Motivations, join us tonight for the MBT Chat from 7-8:30 pm CST.  Go to www.mybooktherapy.ning.com, sign in and join us in the chat room!

Susie May

I ain’t afraid of nuthin! (Creating the Perfect Suspense Heroine Day 2)

Yesterday, we talked about how to make the plot personal for your heroine so that she’ll leave her life and jump into the world of the suspense. 


That personal element is what will keep your heroine running forward, despite  the looming fears before her. 


Case in point – I hate caves, especially a submerged cave. Never would I ever enter a cave under water.  However, if my child was trapped inside, you betchya.  Just a simple illustration, but if you were using me as your suspense heroine, this would be a great fear to dangle before me to ramp up the stakes. 


I’d have to reach deep inside and find the courage to fit myself through one of those dark, slimy crevasses. 


Which leads me to the other element of a suspense must possess:  Courage.


We don’t think of a woman needing courage, because frankly most women we know are courageous.  However, often it’s because they’ve had to face something about themselves, come to a new belief and hold onto it.  Courage doesn’t come from a knowledge of yourself but of knowledge of who you want to be. 


I jumped out of a plane a few years ago.  I never thought I’d have the courage to skydive.  But, oh! I wanted to.  It wasn’t what was inside me that caused me to do it – it was what I knew I wanted.


A heroine has to want to be a heroine.  Whether it’s because she is tired of her failures, or because she has to overcome them to save the day, she has to increasingly see the need for her to have courage, begin to believe in the person she could be, and reach for it. 


In Eagle Eye, our heroine, Rachel, is just a mom, not Sydney Bristow. She doesn’t’ have a roundhouse kick, or stealth skills, nothing to beef up her courage.  Yet, as the movie progresses, she runs from the police through crazy thick traffic, she holds up an armored car, dodges bullets, shoots herself with a drug that may or may not save her life, climbs into a box loaded into the cargo hold of an airplane, and nearly pulls the trigger to take out someone standing in the way of her son’s rescue.


One could say that her desperation pushes her into the final act…but her courage enables her to accomplish it.  She has finally believed that she is a good mother.


The key to developing courage in your heroine is two fold. 


First, you need to give her Vulnerabilities. 


So, you’ve made the suspense personal, and you’ve made your heroine increasingly courageous.  What’s going to slow her down? Unlike our hero, whose competence, or abilities will be attacked, your heroine has something else that you use to make her stumble on her quest….


See, a woman is rarely deterred from her goal unless you hurt her where it counts. 


What are some of Rachel’s vulnerabilities? 


Her deadbeat husband that causes her not to trust people, especially men, as evidenced by her reaction to a man who wants to buy her a drink.


Her fear of not being a good mom.  She is worried about her son travelling alone, and is sad by the choices she’s forced to make.


In a very poignant moment, Jerry tells her that she’s a great mom, and proves it to her.  She tells him a story that voices her courage:  I can do this (be his mom), no matter what it takes.  She can be the mom she longs to be. 


As the story progresses, the plot continues to put pressures on these vulnerabilities to press her forward.  Often, these vulnerabilities can cause more conflict in the plot. 


Then, you must give her Victories.


Involve her in increasingly difficult, terrifying situations, only to overcome them.  Your heroine must begin to believe in herself, or at least in the person she sees in front of her.  And, as she casts a vision for the woman she wants to be, and pursues it, you as the author must make it come true. 


You cement that courageous moment by asking a two part question: What do you fear the most?  Who do you admire the most (and why?)  Now, ask – if you were faced with your fear, what would you need in order to become the person you admire? 


In The Bourne Identity, Marie is clearly alone, and has left a trail of broken relationships behind.  She wants to be a woman who had a future, has people, and thus when Jason needs help getting the name of a lead at a bank, she goes in his place and gets the name to protect him.  In the end, it takes more courage to leave him when she has fallen for him.    


In Expect the Sunrise, my heroine Andee wants to be like her mother – a woman who achieved her medical degree on her own, a woman who lives without regrets.  Andee desperately fears making the wrong decision that will cost lives – something that has happened in the past.  (at the beginning of the book).   When she is faced with having to leave someone she loves, she realizes that the only way she can live without regrets is knowing that God loves her, and has her life in His hands.  This knowledge propels her to become the person she wants to be. 


Who does your heroine want to be?  What fear stands in front of her?  What will it take for her to overcome this fear and be the woman who completes her journey?  These questions will help you create not just that climatic moment, but the courageous piece she needs to become a heroine that inspires us all.


If you have questions on how to create or apply these elements to your Hero, got to the hero and Heroine discussion at www.mybooktherapy.ning.com. 


Next week we’ll talk about creating the atmosphere of suspense in your book.  Thanks for stopping by!


Susie May