Raising the Stakes – How to use it in your own story

Published on 2019-08-07

Author: David Buckley

We are all familiar with the idea of using stories when talking to our clients. But did you know of a technique used by writers and movie directors all over the world called ‘raising the stakes’?

This is a very powerful method that you can also use in any story to tell to your client. It will pull him into your story and visualize the goal. He will become more emotionally engaged and will the ‘hero’ of your story towards the goal and win.

You can see the technique of ‘raising the stakes’ used everywhere – in advertising, on websites and by companies telling their stories to their clients.

You should use it too. Read on and let me show you how.


There is an essential element that every story must have and that is ‘raising the stakes’.

The hero of the story must experience ‘raising the stakes’ as he races towards his goal. If the writer fails to raise the stakes, there is no story at all and we, the readers, get bored, turn off and lose interest.

You must have experienced this yourself. Have you ever sat through an entire movie and as the end credits roll you are glad it’s all over?

It is very likely because the writer and director forgot to raise the stakes.

This is something that must in every story. And you can use this exact same method in stories you tell your client.

It is highly effective.


What is ‘raising the stakes’?

You probably know the phrase high stakes. We might see this term used when people are discussing a big business deal. Or in a game of poker where there is a lot of money on the table.

It means that the players in the game have a lot to win. But also a lot to lose.

A story needs to have the same element. Each scene that takes place should raise the stakes and make it more difficult for the hero.

The stakes are the consequences the hero has to pay if he fails.

Think about those big Hollywood action movies. You have a star like Dwayne Johnson on a total mission. He must climb the burning building and get to the control tower and beat the bad guy.

If he fails to do it — he loses his family, many people will die, thousands of others will suffer.

If he succeeds in doing it — his family is safe, people still have their lives, he has beaten the bad guy.

The stakes in the story must be very high. There has to be a sense of something huge that the hero could win. And something very important to him he could lose.

If the stakes are low, it makes the story move too slowly. There is little to no conflict, and it leaves us thinking So what?

In the story you tell your client, you do not want him to think So what.


How to raise the stakes?

So you need to raise the stakes in your story you tell your client.


How to do that?

Your story must have a goal. But also each ‘scene’ or part of the story should also have a goal too.

For example, your company sells an app. This app can help people sign up to any class in the city. It also provides information on all the kinds of classes available in the city.

It provides great value to the community and to the providers of all the classes.

Your client has a gym. If he uses your app, he could get more widely known in the community. Other organisations in the community get to know of him and recommend him. These could be yoga centres, health restaurants or training centres. He is then seen as being part of the modern world.

If he doesn’t use it — all the opposite happens. Less well known, no one recommends him, he is lost in obscurity.

You need to identify what these stakes of success and failure could be for your client.


Point out the stakes one by one.

“If you do this, you get this, this and this. But if you don’t do it, you get this and this.”

One thing to remember for any story — the goal is very real. But the stakes are all in the mind. But that can have a powerful effect.

Do not underestimate your client’s imagination!


Think about everything your client could win. Or lose.

Before you build the story you want to tell your client you need to assess what he has to gain.

And what he stands to lose.

Remember: If your client has nothing to lose, he will just gaze back at you and think So what.

You need to remove So what.


There may be an overall conflict that your client is experiencing.  But what are the personal stakes for him? Find those and exploit them.

So getting back to your client who owns the gym. And your app.

What are the personal stakes for the client? Maybe his gym is a small private gym in a city filled full of high-end chains of gyms. His name is the gym name — John’s Fitness Bro’s.

It’s a personal stake that if he wins, he has beaten the big guys. If he loses, he loses face and reputation — he loses his name.

All of these personal, internal stakes work very, very well when you create your story for the client.

Find them and play them out like from a movie.


Your client’s choices must have big consequences

So you play these out in your story.

The word ‘If’ is your best friend here.

“If you do this, then this will happen. Then this will happen and then this.

But if you do this — all of these great things will happen.”


You need to emphasise that for every single action your client makes. There could be very serious reactions — these are the consequences.

Play these out big. Put them right in the front of your story and show them off.

These are the things that can help you win your client over.

Essential parts for your story when raising the stakes


Use short sentences


When telling your story always use short sentences. Short sentences raise the tension in a highly effective way.

This means no long, boring explanations of things.

Short. Cutting. Sentences. Add. Tension.


Use dialogue


Tell your story as if it is a movie script. Never say, so the client explained to me that he felt was blah blah blah blah…

Say this instead:

So the client said “I got this real problem in my gym. Membership is not what I hoped it would be. Some evenings were dead.”

As people, we respond well to dialogue. We use conversation all the time because we are creatures of communication.

Use dialogue.

Act it out for your client.


Add a ticking clock


Every great action movie has the ‘ticking clock’.

The hero has only fifteen minutes before the bomb goes off. He has only one hour before the plane leaves. Only six more days with the girl of his dreams.

The ticking clock works great and can really help you raise the stakes.

Give your client a deadline in the story.


The rule of three


The rule of three is simple: there must be three attempts to solve the conflict before the hero wins the day.

Dwayne Johnson is never successful the first time. The movie would be boring if he was. He has to make three attempts — then he wins.

Use this in your story. Because as you tell the story your client is literally screaming in his head ‘Yes, yes, yes’. He wants to see the hero in your story succeed — it is human nature.

And as he is saying yes, this is all good for you. You want him to say yes to you.

You are home and dry.




‘Raising the stakes’ is a vital part of any story, any movie. If the writer fails to raise the stakes, we lose interest. We don’t care if the hero wins or loses. We have no emotional involvement in the story.

But as soon as the writer raises the stakes, we become totally focused on the hero’s attempts to win or lose.

Our mind is immediately filled with ‘If’ questions. If he does this, then he could lose his job. And if he loses his job, his wife will be angry and if she gets angry, there could be another argument and if and if and if and if…

Use this with your client.

Tell him a story — better to be of another client — and go through all the things that the client could win or lose.

Pick them off one by one and exploit them. Dramatise them and play them out like you are re-enacting a movie. Speak the lines of dialogue like Dwayne Johnson was saying it. Add drama. Add more conflict.

Use punchy short sentences. This builds more tension. Raises the stakes even higher.

Point out to your client all that he stands to lose. All that he stands to lose.

This technique is extremely effective in movies. You have seen it done a thousand times before in every one of your favourite movies.

And you can use it yourself when talking to your client.