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Escalating the storycoaster (In-depth guide)

Escalating the storycoaster (In-depth guide) Escalating the storycoaster (In-depth guide)

Let’s talk about ways you can play with the Storycoaster structure to create rising and falling tension across multiple chapters of your story to create compelling story arcs. 

When we first looked at the Storycoaster, we saw the Peaks and Valleys were all of equal height and depth. The valleys started on the same level and the peaks reached the same level, like so:

storycoaster-3.png

Image description: The original storycoaster image between two green dotted parallel lines. The top line shows all the storycoaster peaks are the same height, while the bottom line shows all the valleys are also the same depth.

This can create an episodic structure in your narrative if you keep at it for long enough. The conflict keeps moving through the same intensity of build and release. This is not the same thing as “the same thing happening over and over.” That’s about repetitive action; this is about the intensity of the conflict.

To create multi-chapter narrative arcs, consider escalating the Storycoaster. Instead of the Valleys resetting at the same level as the previous Valley, the new Valley should be at a higher level than the previous one, as a result of the intensity of the Peak. To put it another way: if you’re writing this way, every Peak should permanently alter the Storycoaster’s track and raise the floor of the story conflict, like so:

STORYCOASTER-ESCALATING--1-.png

Image description: A black sine wave that is tilted upward. There are 5 sections of red text along the wave: “Beginning state” at the very beginning, “First Peak” at the first peak, “New baseline” at the first bottom, “Higher peak” at the second peak, which is slightly higher than the first peak, “New baseline” at the next, slightly higher bottom, and then “Higher peak” at the next, slightly higher peak.

This has the effect of escalating the story's tension, conflict, and stakes over the long term, creating further investment in your reader. Most books, movies, and TV series operate with this kind of escalation, so you’re probably already familiar with it. The most traditional story outlines, beat sheets and plot structures also stress this kind of overarching escalation. You might even be doing this already without realizing it. 

Examples

In "Using conflict effectively", Ada and Emily end the scene in a place of tentative reconciliation. We have a solid sense of what’s changed in their relationship over the course of the scene. However, the overall baseline of the story has not escalated, which is to say, the overall tension and conflict haven’t increased. The Valley we’re in is pretty similar to the Valley we started in.

In contrast, in "Using tension, conflict, and cliffhangers to engage readers", the rejection that Sammy experiences leads him to take action in the aftermath and puts him on the path of leaving his small town.  Leaving town with $300 to his name also implies that Sammy is going to face some big challenges soon around how he’s going to support himself. This raises the stakes and increases the overall conflict for Sammy. The scene begins as a confession of a crush and ends with Sammy reevaluating his life plan: the story gets a lot bigger over the course of the scene, and the baseline conflict and stakes have been raised. Even though we’re in a Valley at the end of the scene, it’s a higher Valley than we started from.

You can also vary how often you raise the floor of your Storycoaster. Maybe you want to raise the baseline every third scene, rather than every scene. Just as long as your scenes all have Climbs, Peaks, Plunges, and Valleys, they don’t need to escalate every time.

The highest peak

As with the regular Storycoaster, the most exciting part of the escalated Storycoaster is the Plunge. It can be helpful to think ahead as you’re planning your story. What is the biggest, most exciting Plunge you want to send your reader on? That will tell you what your biggest Peak is. 

The easiest way to think about your highest Peak and biggest Plunge is to think about your protagonist. What is their story-level Goal? The highest Peak is where they have to take the most decisive action with regards to getting their goal or letting it go. This is the final boss fight, where the protagonist has to lay it all on the line. In a romance, this is the point at which the protagonists have to confront how much they have to change in order to really be together. Another way to think of it is as the place in the story where the Protagonist must confront their biggest fears or challenges in order to come out the other side. If you’re stuck thinking about what your highest Peak would be, think about what your character’s greatest fear is, or the thing they said they could never or would never do, and make them do that. You can then work backward in your plot from that point. 

Coming back down

In traditional dramatic structure, a story climbs to its climax where all the story’s problems and conflicts come to the fore, and then are resolved or changed in the action, and the story de-escalates to its ending, where a new baseline is established. If this sounds similar to the Storycoaster scene structure we discussed, that’s because it is. If you’re going to bring the action up, you should also have a plan for bringing it back down and resolving the conflict.

So an escalated Storycoaster might end up looking like this:

Escalated-Storycoaster.png

Image description: An irregular black sine wave. There are 4 sections of red text along the wave: “Beginning state” at the beginning, “New baseline” at the first, slightly higher bottom, “Highest peak” at the highest peak, and “Ending state” at the very end of the wave.

You’ll notice that the Storycoaster is not even on both sides: the length between the highest peak and the ending of the story is shorter than the build-up.

What's next?

After you’ve brought the Storycoaster back down, you have two options: you can end the story (maybe with an epilogue or two, if you want!), or you can set yourself up for the next goal, the way a TV series will end a season arc and set up another, or the way a sequel picks up from the previous book or movie. We’ll discuss more about this when we discuss Serialization and Story Engine, but if you want to keep your story going after the end of one narrative arc, think about what the protagonist’s next big goal or problem might be. Given the way your characters and their circumstances have changed over the course of the story, what new problems might arise?  If you’re thinking about continuing the story, what doors do you need to leave open? Grey’s Anatomy is over if Meredith Grey dies or retires to become a florist. What is similarly central to your story? What can you evolve on?

Potential pitfalls

Here are some potential pitfalls to watch out for when you’re escalating your Storycoaster. 

Infinite climb

Some stories manage to keep climbing infinitely upward with their stakes and actions, but most don’t. It’s hard to sustain over the long term, and you risk reader burnout. The stakes can stop feeling real after a while. Even if you’re planning a serial story with no set endpoint, having defined arcs where you reset things helps your reader stay engaged. 

Sudden jumps

If you’re worried your story is lagging, it can feel like an easy fix to just raise the stakes—suddenly, things are life or death! But this can be jarring to the reader and can make the story feel all over the place.  The Climb makes the Plunge more exciting, and if you deny your reader the pleasure of anticipation, you’ve cut out some of the fun of your story. 

External events

This is often a subtype of Sudden Jump, where an external event is introduced to suddenly raise the stakes. Think of an abrupt car crash or knife fight in the last third of the story.  While it is of course fine to use external events to raise the stakes, these should be embedded in the growing tension of the story, should be foreshadowed in some way, and should ideally be mixed with using the protagonist’s actions and decisions to advance the story. Plan ahead for your external events, and if you want to include a knife fight in your story, make sure you show us that the characters carry knives and use them to resolve their conflicts. 

Falling off

This is the opposite of the Sudden Jump, where the tension builds up—and then resets without bringing us down sufficiently. There’s a car crash—and then in the next chapter, the character is recovering at home. By jumping to the resolution of the problem, you’ve denied your reader the pleasure of the Plunge, of actually seeing how the conflict you’ve introduced plays out. It’s fine to include these kinds of lower-stakes moments, but they should come as a capstone to the thrill of the Plunge, rather than replacing it entirely. 

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