August 27 – September 2: “How do you raise the stakes to the next level?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW members James Hilton, Kit Frick, Mysti Berry, David Simms, Frank Zafiro, Ronie Kendig, Connie di Marco and Jonathan Whitelaw, and we’re asking them “How do you raise the stakes to the next level?” Scroll down to the “comments” section and follow along – you won’t want to miss this!


Frank Zafiro was a police officer from 1993 to 2013. He is the author of more than 20 novels, mostly crime fiction, including the River City series and the Ania series. In addition to writing, Frank hosts the crime fiction podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He currently lives in Redmond, Oregon.


David Simms lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, son, and animals. He works as a teacher, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, book reviewer, and founding guitarist in the Killer Thriller Band/Slushpile band. FEAR THE REAPER is his second novel.



Mysti Berry has short fiction published in many anthologies including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, should be published again in 2019 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and just published a charity anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, with stories by Catriona McPherson, James W. Ziskin and many other talented writers. She lives in San Francisco with graphic novelist Dale Berry and three black rescue cats, and she’s looking forward to ThrillerFest 2019.


James Hilton lives in the rugged but beautiful North of England. He is currently working on the next book in the ‘Gunn Brothers Thriller’ series from Titan Books and also researching material for the first book in a new YA series. James trained in the martial arts since the age of 11 and is currently ranked as a 4th dan Blackbelt. His other passions include visiting Florida and the Caribbean, reading horror, suspense and action thrillers.


Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author of over twenty titles. She grew up an army brat, and now she and her army-veteran husband live a short train ride from New York City with their children and retired military working dog.


Kit Frick is a novelist, poet, and MacDowell Colony fellow. Originally from Pittsburgh, PA, she studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. When she isn’t putting complicated characters in impossible situations, Kit edits poetry and literary fiction for a small press, edits for private clients, and mentors emerging writers through Pitch Wars. Her debut young adult novel is See All the Stars (Simon & Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2018).


Connie di Marco is the author of the Zodiac Mysteries from Midnight Ink featuring San Francisco astrologer Julia Bonatti. Tail of the Dragon, third in the series, was released in August 2018. Writing as Connie Archer, she is also the author of the national bestselling Soup Lover’s Mysteries from Berkley Prime Crime. You can find her excerpts and recipes in The Cozy Cookbook and The Mystery Writers of America Cookbook. Connie is a member of MWA, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers.


Jonathan Whitelaw is an author, journalist and broadcaster. After working on the frontline of Scottish politics, he moved into journalism. Subjects he has covered have varied from breaking news, the arts, culture and sport to fashion, music and even radioactive waste – with everything in between. He’s also a regular reviewer and talking head on shows for the BBC and STV. HellCorp is his second novel following his debut, Morbid Relations.


  1. My general modus of raising the stakes is cause and effect. I consciously try to instil a real sense of escalation in my Gunn Brother Thrillers. In fiction it is possible to control this rate of escalation carefully throughout the book to assist pacing and to allow the protagonists to survive in a believable way. I deal with crime/action thrillers and as such involve violent acts. I do believe it is important to temper the action and violence with interspersed humour and character development and show how the character deals and reacts to the violent incident.
    With the cause and effect scenario on mind, I also try to imbue the consequences of the acts. If the protagonists fail in their objectives, who will suffer? Who will die?

    I write action thrillers and there is often a sliver of escapism in this genre, both in books and most especially on film, even when the action is expertly portrayed. The Bourne movies with Matt Damon is a great example of this. Amazing action sequences and combat scenes but how much can one man take and survive?
    I try to show my characters picking up injuries as they go. If you engage in combat you will get injured, that’s the truth of it.

    Setting and environment is also a method I try to employ. A fight in an empty field is usually much less perilous that a tussle on top of a moving train.

    Of course, not everyone writes action thrillers, but the same principles can translate well into a family or legal drama. If the protagonists fail in their objectives, who will suffer? Who will lose their partner, spouse, business or home? What will be the effect of this loss? How many others will this loss impact?
    The emotional impact of these losses can be untold and devastating. In fiction we can always
    right these wrongs, bring perpetrators to justice, catch the killer or save the dying child. If only real life held the same promise.

  2. The threat is ALWAYS the key when raising the stakes. If the threat to a protagonist is getting bigger, better and/or badder then the response is not only going to have to match that – but better it. That is, if you want your hero to win.

    My most recent book – HellCorp – deals with a lot of issues. But at its core is a murder mystery thriller – a whodunnit that needs to be solved. The biggest challenge I faced was, ironically, my characters, my heroes, the people that should be EASIEST to write for. I was – after all, like the reader – rooting for them.

    The problems started with HellCorp’s hero – THE DEVIL. How do you raise the stakes with a creature who is omnipotent, as old as the universe and is a pain in the backside know-it-all?

    If nothing else I like a challenge with my writing. While The Devil is a unique example, a protagonist who is in complete control of their life, surroundings and setting is just as problematic for a thriller author wanting to push them to the limit.

    That’s where the threat comes in. The bigger the threat the worse the consequences if our hero doesn’t win. And usually, as is often the psychology in real life, the greater the challenge, the more characters can be pushed and push themselves. From a ticking time bomb to the strains of guilt, love, pride and fear.

    Upping the stakes is a challenge. It’s as much part of the thriller writing process as plot, character development, setting and tone. For me, challenging myself in my writing is one of the best parts of the job. To cook up scenarios, big and small, only to untangle them is the unique privilege of the thriller and crime writer.

    And I’m happy and immensely proud to be considered among them. After all, if I can up the stakes for my characters and novels – I should be able to do the same for myself as an author.

    Seems only fair, doesn’t it?

  3. Stakes are raised in thrillers in a few ways, but the one way that will always connect with readers is through the characters.
    In my creative writing class I have stapled to the wall – “Who Cares?”.
    You can have international travels, ninja assassins, biochemical attacks,murders in small towns, etc etc, but if the reader doesn’t connect with the players, then who cares what happens?
    The biggest “high-concept” novel might succeed once but making a career of it won’t be happening if you can’t have the characters that readers care about. Stakes mean nothing if the reader doesn’t give a damn about who’s in the story. Just think of all the awful throwaway horror movies where the victims are cardboard at best. How many viewers rooted more for Freddy Krueger, Jason, or Michael Myers than the butchered teens?
    Start with a character that resonates. Victims who could be a family member or friend down the street. Someone who reminds the reader of someone they know.
    The emotional hook is key. Once the reader connects to a main character, victim, or whoever, then the author can worry about raising the stakes. Stephen King once stated that he loves to torture the people we love. I’m not sure if it was original but it fits.
    In FEAR THE REAPER, I detailed how a group of eugenicists nearly started a holocaust right here in America, before Nazi Germany. They targeted over 15 million people, most of whom would be us “normal” folk. A very true, cool story, but I knew not many would care about this dark piece of history without people to care about and root for. The main character is a wounded, flawed being that seeks redemption. His deaf brother might finally have a life in a great school. His love interest, an immigrant chef escaping an abusive husband. His new best friend, a minority whose entire family has been screwed over by his country but still succeeds.
    None of these are highly original tropes but I hope readers will connect with how I drew them. As each faces one conflict, another, bigger one threatens his or her life and those they care about. Toss in the big concept and the stakes are raised organically, personally and globally.
    Look at some of the best thrillers – The Silence of The Lambs, First Blood, The Exorcist, and the new great ones, K.J. Howe’s The Freedom Broker and any of Michael Koryta’s books. Once we buy into their beautifully drawn characters, the stakes are raised several notches, resulting in stoked emotions because of that connection. We want them to succeed and root for them to beat every conflict that amps up the story. Run those you love on the page through the gauntlet and the stakes will feel real, no matter how wild the story.

  4. ‘Raising the stakes?’ Well, I interpret that to mean grabbing the reader by the throat and then continuing to grab the reader by the throat so he or she can’t stop turning pages well into the wee hours. There’s a phrase I always try to keep in mind — Trouble Is My Business — the title of a Raymond Chandler story and collection. It’s absolutely essential to burden your sleuth/cop/agent/private investigator with increasing degrees of problems – physical, situational, even emotional. The more obstacles you can dream up as a writer, the better — so many setbacks, frustrations and dead ends that the reader and even the protagonist himself can’t hope to overcome all the difficulties and dangers.
    Your sleuth has to hit one brick wall after another until the reader yearns for some sort of release or breakthrough. Your protagonist must face deadly danger of some sort, be in fear for his or her very life, so that even the reader doesn’t know if he/or she will actually survive to solve the crime, find the bomb, take down the terrorist or just make it to the end of the book.
    Better yet, if there’s something extremely personal at stake for the character– i.e., his child has been abducted and the police/FBI are at a loss. His spouse/sister/best friend is held hostage in a location that will cause death if not found within a certain time. And if all three elements can be incorporated at various stages, all the better. Or as our icon Chandler once said, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”
    My first published series was a culinary cozy series. Since I’m not much of a soft-boiled reader, I wasn’t sure how far I could go with danger and gore. But I figured I like books with lots of tension and physical danger, so even though those elements aren’t usually found in village mysteries, I decided to just go with it. Fortunately, my editors were very accepting. I just had to make sure evil came from outside the village. In A Broth of Betrayal (yes, don’t laugh, each title had to be a play on words) the body count rises as the killer exacts his revenge for an old tragedy. But my favorite scene in that book involved a woman, dear to my protagonist, who was held hostage in a house that had been set on fire. My current series, the Zodiac Mysteries, follows a traditional format but I really enjoy writing life-threatening, a la Perils of Pauline, dénouements for my crime-solving astrologer in each book.
    Above all else, I believe a reader must identify with and care about a protagonist. If that connection isn’t established, then all the technical tricks in the world won’t do it. A reader must absolutely be emotionally invested in the character’s success and survival. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget to throw in a cliffhanger at the end of each chapter too.

    1. Nothing worse as a reader than feeling manipulated instead of carried along…thanks for the great observation!

  5. Raising the Stakes in a thriller has varying degrees of threats and impacts. As has already been mentioned, it’s key to the character. Typically in a story, I will start with a bang–a big impact that, of course, alters the characters status quo and vaults them into an uncomfortable (physically or emotionally) “mission,” (something they must accomplish. Then I work with an internal/externals series of variables, hiccups, or thwarts. Internal is obviously their personal life, and I work hard to upend the normalcy and quiet of whatever their existence entails. Then I throw those external forces at them–jobs, missions, etc. Sometimes, those two elements are paired to affect the hero by having a loved one harmed/killed.
    By altering and/or upping the stakes internally, I both amp the character’s “need” to finish to resolve the situation and amp up the need for that end. I will then progressively make things works with each attempt he explores to achieve his goal. To me, if you are not affecting your character internally, you may not be impacting your reader either. It’s nice to read a book with a lot of explosions (literal and figurative), but grabbing the heart and throat is more than just an blow to his/her attempts to bring about the desired goal–it’s about THEM bringing about that goal. And by going internal with the

  6. We write thrillers. Many times, the stakes for our protagonists are already life and death, so the question becomes: is that enough?

    My sense is that, in most cases, it is not. It’s certainly not something we can rely on as the sole source of tension in our writing.

    For me, raising the stakes to the next level is all about determining what my protagonist wants most—to live, yes, if her life is in danger, but beyond that—why does she want to live? What does she stand to lose? And how does what happens in the story (i.e. the plot) put that desire in jeopardy? Make it personal—that’s what this stakes thing boils down to. If your protagonist doesn’t make it out of the story alive, what strong, character-specific desire dies with her? The opportunity to be a parent? The chance to see her small business succeed? The love of her life? Digging down to what your protagonist wants most, and putting that goal clearly on the line, is what enables you to raise the already-thrilling stakes.

  7. I may be the odd author out here, as I don’t write thrillers. I write crime fiction. Most of the time, the crime involved is murder, so the stakes are already high. But how to raise the stakes to the next level?

    It all has to do with what matters to the character.

    In a thriller, the stakes might go from finding a missing child, to rescuing the now-kidnapped child, to saving the city (maybe that’s a stupid line of progression — I don’t know. I write crime fiction, and suck at thrillers). In crime fiction, there’s always the option of heightening the danger to the protagonist(s) as they strive to solve the crime. But the stakes really go up when something that matters personally to those characters comes into play. A relationship, a career, some form of honor, or redemption. But honestly, if you can get the reader to identify with the character, the something personal could be anything, even a peanut butter sandwich.

    That’s the beauty of fiction. If the reader is drawn into that world, then she will accept the rules that world has created. And if that happens, then whatever is important to the character in the story will seem important to the reader, too. Then it is as simple as putting that something in danger.

    I imagine that at its most basic level, a thriller does this same thing, though it seems to me that most thriller have objectively high stakes. But the formula I’ve described works in any story, in any genre. Create a compelling character worth caring about, and the reader will care about him losing what he cares about.

    Ironically, the way to accomplish this as an author, I think, is to make sure we don’t fall too deeply in love with our characters that we can’t ask (and answer diabolically) what horrific obstacles to throw at them next….

    In my River City series and its spinoff Stefan Kopriva Mysteries, I’m very fond of Stefan Kopriva. And yet, he has been rightfully described as my whipping boy, because the guy has been through hell. Book to book, I’ve raised the stakes in his world, and raised the costs of winning out. In a much slower burn, I’ve been doing the same with Officer Katie MacLeod, who has become the core of the River City series.

    So to recap…make ’em love your character, don’t love ’em yourself too much to strategically torture them…and I think you’re there.

  8. This is where my screenwriting discipline comes in wicked handy. Before I write the first scene, I have:

    1. Created the main character, and what’s at stake for her. What will cause her physical and psychic demise if it happens or she fails to stop it happening? How does the dramatic question (core of the story) bang on that?
    2. Created five key events:
    a. Inciting incident (thing that sets her on the journey, her plan or goal)
    b. First reversal/end of first act (first push of the antagonist that thwarts her initial plan)
    c. Revised plan.
    d. 2nd reversal–midpoint that spins the story in a new direction–often a change in goal or plan
    e. End of 2nd act–she’s lost everything, the way to her original goal seems completely blocked, all her resources gone.
    f. Third act–her renewed attempts to achieve goal, the ultimate threat to her & that goal, and the climax/resolution.

    When it’s in outline form like that, it’s easy to ensure that what happens at 2.a is smaller, less threatening than 2.b, and so on through 2d, 2e, 2f

    It’s not so easy to plant info so that reader both anticipates *something* but is in suspense as to exactly how that something will be achieved or what it will be. In other words, it’s easy enough to put a bomb under the desk, but pretty hard to motivate it, and surprise the audience with how the bomb situation resolves.

    For me, structure is easy, but flesh and clothing can take multiple revisions. If I don’t get the structure right, I am wasting my time writing. But that’s because this is how I learned to write.

    The short answer is: make sure what’s at risk is bigger at every crisis point. Make sure the antagonist is growing stronger as the protagonist is growing weaker/running out of resources, and then be brilliant at the end to resolve it all. *YMMV*

    Also, don’t be afraid to toss out whole segments if you have a brilliant idea in the shower about upping the stakes.

    What I hate to see writers do is use characters as props:

    * Kidnap/rape family members (lazy unless motivated)
    * Murder the family pet
    * Literal ticking clock (though, of course, sometimes it works!)

    1. Forgot the concrete example:

      1. Investigator’s friend is murdered, she is blamed.
      2. She tries to clear her name to avoid jail.
      3. She discovers her other friend is the killer, and coming for her next.

      so we go from loss to fear to existential fear.

      Mystery (vs. thriller) can sometimes struggle with stakes-upping, because the thing they’re doing is unraveling a mystery. Hammett just has the people trying to stay hidden get closer and closer to whacking the investigator. I like how Mosley upped the stakes for Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress–hard enough to sort out what’s going on, then a wildly unstable friend joins in, wreaking violent havoc wherever he goes. Agents of chaos are the writer’s best friend!

      1. OMG I love love love thinking about structure. Tell me how it works out! The theory is pretty simple, the execution can make me bang my head on the desk 🙂

  9. My rule of thumb for raising the stakes has been to put my protagonist in the worst possible situation and then make that situation seem unsurvivable. Such has, my protagonist Lillian Dove was water-boarded by Absolut Vodka in Suppose, the second novel in the series. She is a recovering alcoholic.

  10. Just curious, given that it seems many of you are working with specific protagonists: Do you use similar techniques with ensemble casts of characters? Do you rely more on setting and situation in that case?

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