Up the Stakes Halfway Through the Story

The way stories sometimes run out of steam is when nothing new happens once a problem appears. For example, in “Spiderman: Homecoming,” the problem isn’t just that Spiderman is dealing with the Vulture, a criminal who is using alien technology to commit crimes. That’s a problem in itself but then the problem’s stakes get higher when Spiderman realizes that the Vulture is actually the father of the girl he likes. Even worse, the Vulture now knows Spiderman’s identity. That suddenly ups the stakes for the hero.

In “WALL-E,” the initial problem may seem like trying to get Eve to fall in love with him. When WALL-E stows away on the rocket to follow Eve, he finds himself on a giant spaceship where the remnants of humanity are marooned. Suddenly the stakes are raised when WALL-E learns that the villain plans to keep the human race marooned in space forever and destroy WALL-E in the process.

The way to raise the stakes in a story is to first leak out hints of the villain’s goal and mislead audiences into thinking they know the whole story of the villain when they really don’t. In “Die Hard,” we initially think the villain is a terrorist planning to hold the people hostage. Only later do we realize the villain’s goal is far more sinister. He’s eventually planning to blow up the hostages on the rooftop to distract the police so he can escape. In the process of killing the hostages on the roof, he’ll also kill the hero’s wife.

Every great movie hides the villain’s true goal, which is how the midpoint of the story suddenly seems to raise the stakes. It’s not that the villain’s goal is suddenly new. It’s that the villains’ real goal has been cleverly hidden from the audience until the midpoint of the story where it’s finally revealed.

In “Titanic,” we think the real problem is that Rose will be forced to marry a man she doesn’t love. Then around the midpoint, we learn that her real problem is trying to survive a sinking ocean liner.

In “Avatar,” we think the real problem is that the hero will be lost on an alien world and eventually killed. Then after the midpoint, we learn that the real problem is that the humans plan to destroy the aliens’ sacred Hometree and kill most of the aliens at the same time, including the hero’s girlfriend.

In “Alien,” we think the real problem is how to get rid of an alien creature that has hidden itself on the ship. Then after the midpoint, we learn that the real problem is that the alien is hunting and killing the human crew.

Create a goal for your villain and then hide that goal through the first half of the story. Then reveal the villain’s goal after the midpoint. This will appear to up the stakes for your hero while misdirecting the audience into thinking the hero’s problem is one thing when it’s really something else. By doing this, you’ll create a far more interesting story and keep up suspense to hold the audience’s attention from beginning to end.

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