What’s at stake for your character if he does or doesn’t accomplish his goal? The greater the stake, the greater the tension. Your protagonist’s ultimate happiness, perhaps even his life, should depend on the outcome of his quest. Here are some strategies and examples of ways to increase tension:
• When writing about stakes, ask yourself this question: Are the stakes high and the consequences for failure dreadful? If the stakes in the story are low, then tension will be weak.
• Remember, a failure is bad enough when private; when your family, friends, school, town, or the entire universe knows about it, it’s devastating.
• Understanding what your protagonist most values will allow you to place that thing at risk.
• Escalate tension by making your protagonist wonder if what is at stake is worth it.
• The stakes don’t have to be literally mortal. But they must feel like life and death to the specific character.
• Remember: There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological. Physical death needs no explanation.
• Psychological death. In a romance, for example, if the two soul mates don’t end up together, it will be a kind of death—their lives will be incomplete, forever.
• Professional death: An FBI agent on a case might have her entire career on the line, as Clarice Starling does in The Silence of the Lambs.
• For a teenage protagonist, life is over after a failed test, a broken heart or parental restrictions.
Take some time to create a history for your character that describes how he found himself in the position that created the stakes that now drive him to master his challenge or risk physical, professional or psychological death.