Skip to content

SCENE IT! Complicate Your Characters’ Lives

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Yesterday, we looked at how to raise the stakes, up the ante, for our characters in the middle of our scenes/stories.

A great example of a movie (miniseries, really) that raises the stakes and develops conflicts like nothing else I’ve ever seen is The 10th Kingdom. The simple premise is that two modern New Yorkers (played by John Larroquette and Kimberly Williams-Paisley) find themselves transported into the land of the Nine Kingdoms—fairy-tale land! They must find the magic mirror that transported them to this fantasy world to get back to New York. When the story finally ends seven hours later, you feel like you’ve run a marathon—because these poor characters have been put through the ringer.

Do you back off of conflicts in your story? Do you pull punches? Do you try to make things easier for your characters? Do you resolve arguments off stage?


Techniques for Upping the Ante for Your Characters

  • Drop hints that the antagonist knows something which the hero/POV character doesn’t—something that is advantageous to the antagonist and/or disastrous for the hero. This is Malfoy taunting Harry Potter with stuff he knows that Harry obviously doesn’t. This is the serial killer taunting the detective. This is someone (either an antagonist or someone well-meaning but ill-informed) telling the heroine that the hero is cheating on her.
  • The antagonist could actually reveal something the hero didn’t know yet: a bit of bad news that alters the hero’s assumptions or decisions or even makes him deviate from his scene goal (or at least makes the reader believe he will).
  • Show that the hero has faulty information—and that he doesn’t realize it—to lead the reader to believe he’ll make the wrong decision.
  • Dangle the object(s) of your character’s desire just out of reach, a.k.a. withholding. Emotional withholding: A father withholds his approval no matter what the son (main character) does to try to gain it. Withholding information: the location of something or someone important, information that could lead to someone’s arrest, etc. Withholding objects: play a game of keep-away with your character (i.e., the chest containing Davy Jones’s heart in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie).
  • Have the antagonist (or an outside source) set a ticking clock on the duration of the scene. (Can Jack Bauer stop the terrorists in twenty-four hours? Can Rose get Jack unshackled before the room fills with water as Titanic sinks?)
  • As already mentioned, set a timer on your character’s actions, a time-limit in which to make a decision. You end a scene with the hero receiving a ransom note from the kidnapper who has his child: You have three hours to deliver $5 million or I kill the kid. What happens in the sequel scenes is shaped by that disaster, by that time-limit.
  • Have the POV character come to understand—on his own or with help—an entirely different aspect of the previous disaster he hadn’t thought of before. How can that disaster actually be used to his advantage?
  • On the flip-side, instead of realizing how the disaster can be advantageous, the character is now overwhelmed by the disaster (and the emotions resulting from it) and plunges back into the conflict with insufficient understanding of what’s going on, leading to more disasters.
  • Introduce roadblocks (have you ever seen The Amazing Race?) that create a “sidebar” conflict the character must get through to get to the next scene; conflicts which the character (and thus the reader) sees as relating directly to his stated goal for that scene, but which, in reality, only serve to throw him further off course.
  • Have the character hint that he has more of an agenda than he’s revealed to the reader. Something along the lines of, “He knew what he had to do.”
  • Stage an interruption—an outside stimulus—which forces the character to stop “sequelizing” and meet the new threat/conflict. This is very similar to the roadblock idea. Something interrupts the very straight-forward direction of the plot and either waylays the character for a little while or throws him completely onto a different trajectory for the remainder of the story.
  • Put the character or someone he loves in physical/mortal danger.

What are some ways in which you’ve seen writers (in books, movies or TV shows) up the ante for their characters? What are some ways you can do this in your story?

  1. Tuesday, February 26, 2013 8:27 am

    Great list of ways to up the ante! I love doing that, and what you said in a previous lesson about payoff helped me not to feel so cruel. What you said about “sequelizing” was good about staging an interruption so it doesn’t drone on forever.


  2. Tuesday, February 26, 2013 8:28 am

    Oh, and an example of upping the ante – Avatar. I just saw it last night and thought it did just that.


  3. Tuesday, February 26, 2013 8:32 am

    I think this is what a lot of angry viewers don’t understand about the ending to Season 3 of Downton Abbey (aside from the fact the actor wanted to leave the show): Once you’ve put a character through pretty much everything you can think of and he’s finally attained his ultimate goal, he becomes uninteresting. In fiction, happy people who don’t want anything don’t create or drive conflict.


    • Tuesday, February 26, 2013 1:34 pm

      Matthew was so nice that he was boring at the best of times. And I still don’t understand why a nice guy like him ended up with Lady Mary.

      Oh, yes I do. It was to create conflict. Because fiction isn’t real life.


  4. Tuesday, February 26, 2013 8:43 am

    We should quote you on that – “In fiction, happy people who don’t want anything don’t create or drive conflict.”



  1. SCENE IT! Hooking Your Reader with Scene Endings |
  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Beginnings, Middles, and Endings | #amwriting #2017WritingGoals |

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: