This issue seems so obvious. I think it’s a challenge because, in part, we avoid escalation of problems in our personal lives, but in the make believe fantasy worlds we spend so much time in, escalation is the backbone of intrigue. 

I’ve been teaching for years, and not one student has surprised me by escalating the story without being told, and yet, in all my years of studying and working on my own education, escalation was never part of the lesson. It was discussed after the fact, and I see this as part of the problem. Which is why I always included lessons on escalation in my teaching portfolio.  

In simple terms, an escalating problem means it gets harder and more challenging to work through. Think of escalation as excitement, intrigue, momentum…. all the aspects of why a story is exciting to watch. 

Watch the short Sebastian’s Voodoo

Pay attention to how Sebastian works through the challenge. Our hero does not go straight for the solution. That would be a short and boring story. So, we make the journey more and more challenging so our readers/audience remain on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next moment. 

Sebastian attacks his problems from the easiest, safest choice first, finally working his way to the ultimate choice (his last). In doing this, we (the audience) know things are going to get worse, and we are afraid for our hero. Finally, he sets up his last heroic shot, and we know he has no choice because we’ve watched him try everything else. We know he has to make this one choice – and that’s what makes him a hero. 

From the moment the hero accepts the call and steps into act 2, the problems should begin escalating. And that means all problems – personal issues, action-oriented, goal specific, and character motivated internal problems — this is how we put our hero’s through hell and how they learn their lessons. 

There’s no magic formula to plan a perfect escalation. Think about how you want your audience to feel, or what you want them to experience. During the outlining process, build in your escalations.  Escalating is a process and you must have moments of downtime. You can’t build if you don’t give people a chance to calm down and recover from moments of stress. Point your audience in different directions, allow them to relax and soak in the high anxiety before sending them off for more. 

Many televisions series open with a teaser – a few minutes of pure escalation and excitement. We love those teasers. But you cannot rely on pure escalation to tell your story either. It’s a balancing act. Next time you’re watching something, really pay attention to how the escalation builds throughout the story. Chart it. 

It’s like climbing a giant mountain – it takes preparation, planning, health and fitness, dedication, commitment, determination and luck to reach the top — alive. Keep that in mind next time you start outlining and plan your escalations.