There’s a scene in the 1987 film The Untouchables (written by David Mamet) where a streetwise beat cop played by Sean Connery explains to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness about how to fight the mob. “They pull a knife,” he says, “you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”
This advice also applies to the structuring of action elements in a story. If the obstacles and enemies that the heroes and heroines face are uniform throughout the book, then the trajectory will remain flat and the reader’s involvement will be threatened.
With a lot of the character types we write (military, law enforcement, street hardened, etc.) it’s important that the person is capable of holding up to a threat. We want them to be good at what they do. And that’s why a solid escalation is very important.
Through the course of the story, the threats need to be one step ahead of our characters, always one level beyond their capabilities. So when a hero shows up carrying only a knife, the villain has a gun. Our heroine is in a car? The bad guy drives a semi truck.
And then the next time they meet, things are ramped up once again. The hero learned his lesson and brought a gun along. Now the villain is armed, with two henchmen at his side. Or the bad guy in the truck is now in a helicopter.
By raising the stakes like this throughout the story, you’re not making your hero and heroine less heroic, you’re actually highlighting how strong, brave and resourceful they are. If they had simple, even threats to overcome, it would seem too easy. But if they’re forced to keep fighting against apparently insurmountable odds while at a disadvantage, the reader gets to see what your characters are really made of. The hero and heroine dig deep in their struggles, and when they finally succeed in defeating the threat, it’s all that much more satisfying because victory was never certain.
These shifts in the power dynamic don’t always have to be as overt as gun vs. knife. I could be your villain is on to your heroes and moves his critical information from a safe they’re currently cracking. Or it could be an escalation in emotional manipulation from a bad guy that is still trusted by the hero or heroine.
Raising the stakes is one of the main reasons I like to plot my books. Having pre-planned these escalations allows me to track the overall rise in tension in action while building to the main climax of the piece.
Do you have any techniques for tracking the rising action in your books? Or as a reader, how challenged by the villainy to you like your heroes and heroines to be?