Saturday, May 28, 2022

4 Clever Tricks to Immediately Transform Any Scene into a Compelling High-Stakes Situation

by Zena Dell Lowe @ZenaDellLowe

Ever feel like you’ve written a scene and it’s just plain boring? Maybe that scene is too important to be cut, but it slows down the momentum of your story and just isn’t compelling. If you find yourself in this situation, behold, I bring good news. Here are four clever tricks that you can use to transform a ho-hum scene and make it come alive. 

1. Make sure the situation is attached to something important.

The only reason we ever invest in a story is if we care about the main character’s journey, and the only reason we care about their journey is if there’s something important at stake. In other words, we need to believe that the outcome matters. Make it clear to your readers what will happen if your character succeeds or fails in each scene. Readers emotionally invest in a story if and only if the stakes are high enough. They need to fear the possibility of a terrible outcome for your character. They need to feel like, if the character fails, all will be lost. Thus, a scene that drags is usually an indication of a low-stakes scenario, which means we can transform that scene simply by raising the stakes. 

2. Rewrite that scene so that there’s a ticking time bomb of some sort.

Using time as a device to put pressure on your character is a wonderful way to raise the stakes. Even a scene that moves slowly can feel suspenseful when we know that time is running out. In fact, the very slowness itself can play a role in adding tension. It makes our readers nervous. It causes anxiety and fear. While we may wish to avoid these emotions in real life, these are essential to good storytelling. Unfortunately, this device may be more or less difficult to employ depending on your genre. It’s one thing for an action character to be racing against the clock to locate and diffuse a bomb, but this scenario wouldn’t be believable in, say, a medieval romance novel. Nevertheless, the goal is to simply put your character in a difficult situation where they must navigate a situation quickly and deftly to avoid some undesirable outcome. 

3. Catch the character off guard.

Another trick is to have something happen that takes your character by surprise. It could be something huge and dramatic, or something more personal or subtle. It doesn’t matter how big the event is so long as it makes sense given the type of story. Perhaps in your crime thriller, your main character is out buying flowers when suddenly, BOOM! The coffee house next door explodes in a rain of gunfire. Now, your character must find a way to survive this horrible terrorist attack. Or, perhaps in your post WWII relationship drama, your main character is working alone in her garden when suddenly, BOOM! Her stern mother-in-law drops by for an unexpected visit. Now, your character must play host to a mean woman who has only ever shown her disdain. 

In both cases, the stakes go up and the scene unfolds in a similar fashion. In scenario one, the main character must try to control her fears, keep her wits, and find a way to escape death even as people scream and run for cover all around her. In scenario two, the main character may be internally screaming and running for cover, but outwardly, she, too, must control her fears, keep her wits, and find a way “to escape” (avoid conflict) “death” (being destroyed by her mother-in-law). 

In scenario one, the stakes are literally life and death, whereas in scenario two, the stakes are figurative. The main character won’t actually die if she fails to navigate her condescending mother-in-law, but she does risk losing her dignity, or perhaps even her standing in the family, if she fails. You can manufacture a high-stakes situation simply by taking your character by surprise. Generally, the surprise is a negative one, but it could also be something positive so long as it still causes stress, like a friend who takes the character on an impromptu skydiving adventure. The key is to catch the character off guard.

4. Take away their “toys”. 

No matter the genre, your main character inevitably has things that he or she has come to rely upon for peace of mind or a sense of control. Perhaps it’s her relationship with the next-door neighbor, who always gives her tea and life-advice in a timely fashion. The point is to transform the scene into a high-pressure situation by taking away anything that your character could use to help regulate her own emotions, reduce stress, or alleviate the pressure she’s feeling. When we can’t enjoy a fresh cup of coffee on the morning of the big interview because the pot is suddenly on the fritz, it does more than just prevent us from reducing stress. It adds even more pressure to the situation. It frazzles us. Puts us on edge. It shows us who we are deep down. 

It could be anything, really. A type of food. A special drink. Smoking a pipe. Playing the piano. Rock climbing. Boxing. Cleaning the house. Knowledge. It might even be a type of weapon or tool that the character uses to defend or protect herself. Whatever gives your character a sense of safety, peace, or normalcy, whatever she turns to when things start to crumble, that’s the “toy” you want to take away. 

The idea is to prevent the character from finding relief, and you do that by removing those comfort items that have the potential to restore their sense of equilibrium. We need to keep the pressure on so they’ll be forced to rely on themselves rather than their favorite coping mechanisms. If your character is prone to relying on a best friend’s advice, then that friend is unavailable during the character’s time of crisis. If it’s a weapon that comforts them, it gets confiscated or otherwise removed from the equation. If it’s an emotional support dog who helps manage her anxiety, the dog goes missing (which makes her anxiety worse). If she plays the violin when she’s upset, one of the strings breaks. If she’s in the habit of jogging to release pent-up anger, she trips and falls and sprains her ankle, or steps into a puddle of mud and ruins her running shoes—whatever you need to do to take the toys away. 


The next time you find yourself with a scene that lacks luster, try employing one of these four nifty tricks. Instead of allowing your character to calm her nerves by resorting to one of the many habits she’s developed, take away her toys until she's got nothing left but her own wits. Or throw her off her game by taking her by surprise. Or, add pressure by making her race against the clock. In all of it, make sure that the outcome matters. This transforms the scene from an innocuous one into a high-pressure, high-stakes scenario, and that’s when things really get interesting.


Zena has worked professionally in the entertainment industry for over 20 years as a writer, producer, director, actress, and story consultant. Zena also teaches advanced classes on writing all over the country. As a writer, Zena has won numerous awards for her work. She also has several feature film projects in development through her independent production company, Mission Ranch Films. In addition to her work as a filmmaker, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast designed to serve the whole artist, not just focus on craft. In 2021, Zena launched The Storyteller’s Mission Online Platform, where she offers advanced classes and other key services to writers. Zena loves story and loves to support storytellers. Her passion is to equip artists of all levels to achieve excellence at their craft, so that they will truly have everything they need to change the world for the better through story.

To find out more about Zena or her current courses and projects, check out her websites at WWW.MISSIONRANCHFILMS.COM and WWW.THESTORYTELLERSMISSION.COM


  1. Great advice. I’m going to go back and do some rewriteing.

  2. Zena, this was quite timely! I jsut finished a scene (first draft) and not happy with it. I knew what was wrong (stakes not high enough) but not sure in this case how to fix it. Your post gave me a lightbulb moment! Thanks!!

    1. This is wonderful news! Yay! I’m so glad it helped.

  3. Noooo! Anything but a coffee maker on the fritz! :) Thank you for sharing great BOOM ideas to up the stakes for the character and the emphasis on making us care about the character's need to acquire their goal.