Escalating Your Story

Every story consists of a character with a problem, and deals with his attempts to resolve that problem.

This happens in several phases. In phase 1, the character recognizes that he has a problem–a big problem, one that will change his life.

In phase 2, the character tries to resolve the problem and fails. As a result, the problem grows or escalates. It might deepen, meaning that the problem will have a more powerful affect on the character.  For example, our detective begins to investigate a murder and thinks at first that it is just another case.  He might even try to laugh it off—after all, it was what some say “just some dumb polygamist” that got killed. But as he begins to get involved, he becomes more absorbed by the problem. Perhaps he has trouble sleeping, or he can’t stop thinking about the polygamist’s wife. His desire to help her becomes overwhelming. His own internal demons start to surface, and he fears going mad—that’s what we mean when we say that the problem deepens.

But the problem could also broaden, meaning that it will affect more people. For example, as the investigation continues, our detective discovers that the same killer has targeted several other people, and as our detective closes in, he suddenly has reason to suspect that the killer (who feels that he has been robbed of a victim), decides to strike at the detective’s own family.

Sometimes the problem can become both deeper and broader. In fact, in the best stories, both will happen. But just remember, you have to find ways to escalate the stakes.

Each time that a character tries to resolve a problem, escalate, escalate, escalate.

In phase 3, the character attempts to resolve his problems. Along the way, he will discover that he has to work harder than he imagined. He’ll have to struggle, draw upon reserves of strength and cunning that he didn’t know that he had. And he must fail to resolve the problem a second time, a third, and possibly even a fourth time.

In phase 4, the character finally discovers a solution to the problem, and must face it head-on. This means that if the detective is confronting a killer, he will have to deal with him–typically one-on-one, in a desperate moment.

So, with all of this in mind, I begin looking closely at my conflicts and begin brainstorming scenes in which my character will try to resolve the conflicts. For example, if he’s trying to stop a murderer, I might have a scene where he goes to question the killer. Our detective might have a strong suspicion, but he’s looking for proof. So I have to figure out how the killer will elude him.

Now do this with every single conflict in my tale.

I don’t have to develop a full plot structure for each conflict. It might be that a conflict doesn’t require it. For example, I might decide that at one time, our detective takes a shot at a fleeing suspect–a shadowy figure leaving the scene of a murder–and his gun jams. So he goes home that night and files the action down, so that not only will it not jam, it now has a hair-trigger. So the conflict here is resolved with only one attempt on the detective’s part, but it is a significant action and therefore needs to be concluded.

These are usually my first steps in creating my outline–simply deciding what conflicts I’ll have and what resolution attempts I might try.

Just don’t forget to escalate your story by broadening or deepening.


Humble Bundle has a nice bundle of novels worth $106 that you can get for $15. One of the novels in the Bundle is The Feather and the Moon Well by Shean Pao, which I mentioned in my newsletter last week. Some of the earnings of the Bundle go to charity. There are also some other great novels by Kevin J. Anderson, Peter J. Wacks, Frank Herbert, and others. You can see the Bundle here.

My Million Dollar Outlines workshop is in 2 1/2 weeks. You can learn more about it or register here.

My Write that Novel Seminar is happening in Phoenix next month. Learn more or register here.

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