The Gentle Art of Escalation

There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!

Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.

I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…

Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.

Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.

The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.

Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?

Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!

A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.

And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…

Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.

The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.

Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.

The cake is not a lie

The cake is not a lie




33 responses to “The Gentle Art of Escalation

  1. Someone put a lot of work into that pretty cake 🙂

    Now that you make me think of it, I did things a little different: First I threw My H/e/r/o/ Protagonist into the deepest, darkest pit… but once he got hold of the edge and started climbing, it didn’t seem so dark, nor so steep. Even leveled out in spots, sunshine and blue sky. And just when it seemed he was back on firm ground… damn, that’s a big cliff ahead… shoulda seen that coming from WAAY back, boy…

  2. C4c (conflict for conflict)

  3. I tend to think in terms of mechanical analogues. For me the best plots are like the worst jobs–you start with something that looks like an easy fix and then goes south in a hurry.

    “Sure, I can replace the water pump in an afternoon–there’s only six bolts holding it on.” And then you realize that you have to take off the bracket for the air conditioning pump and the tensioner for the serpentine belt and before you know it you’re trying to reach under the engine block and inventing brand new cuss words while holding a flashlight in your mouth.

    So I would start the story with a very simple goal–make dinner for a group of friends coming over that evening. Then throw in being called in for a job interview, but it’s okay, there’s still plenty of time. Then my protagonist locks his keys in the car at the job interview and while waiting for the locksmith gets the news that one of the guests in vegan and the pot roast with potatoes au gratin isn’t going to cut it. Meanwhile an ice storm is on the horizon.

    • Yes, that works too (and thank heaven the ice storm didn’t start to roll in until today!)

    • Or you are down to two screws on the pump and a little fuel leaks out. The owner of the plane assures you that all X Gallons of fuel have been removed. With a sense of growing doom you remove the last screw and get several gallons of high-octane gas on your back as said owner says (from just beyond grabbing distance) “Oh, I thought you meant usable, not total.”*

      Sometimes the hero realizes that the fit is going to hit the Shan and there’s nothing to do but power through (and then go after someone with a 1” wrench and uncharitable intentions.)

      *All details changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and the author, who was NOT the pilot.

      • And the most amusing stories are usually also the ones that make you grimace and think, Oh, that sucked.

      • Don’t you generally assume the owner/boss/whoever is a lying sack of parrot droppings with the IQ of gravel? I never go wrong with that. Of course there’s fuel in the pump. There’s always fuel in the pump.

        All guns are always loaded, remember? Because idiots exist, and they are good at camouflage.

  4. Frankly I hate stories like that. The busy-busy person keeps getting more and more piled on? Drives me nuts. Math question in the interview? I’ve seen that live. I walked away without a backward glance. Seriously don’t want to read about it happening to somebody else, and them flailing trying to deal with it.

    Basically, if it’s the kind of stress that I’m used to dealing with in Normal Life, I do not want to be reading about it. I can feel the back of my neck tightening up and the rage hormones attacking my last working liver cell. Recreational reading is supposed to be -fun,- not setting off my PTSD.

    Conan the Barbarian goes to the job interview? Now that I’m interested in.

    • You guessed right, The Phantom is not a team player. More of a lurking menace to team players, really. There is no Phantom in “team.” >:)

    • As I was using it for a metaphor, rather than a straight “this is a story you should write” I am sorry to have triggered your PTSd.

      • TRRRRRRIGGERED!!!!!!!!

        Worry not, I am not made of sugar. A passing itch at most. The hives will pass in a day or two, once the horns and fangs retract. ~:)

        I’m trying to think of an example of a book that does what I’m saying, all I can think of is Connie Willis’s “Blackout.” Nothing but busywork and people just missing each other in the London Blitz. A time travel story with no time travel in it, just busyness.

        Perhaps one of those urban fantasies with the busy-busy ex-vampire/detective heroines trying to graduate law school, finish their metaphysics dissertation, take Super SingleMom care of their out-of-wedlock baby AND keep their ex-mother-in-law happy while they Save The World! and beat up their ex-boyfriend a few times.

        Argh. The busyness! It burnsssss!

        • Hey, I’m just happy my IRL stories don’t include things like vampires and saving the universe. It puts math during a job interview into perspective. And if I don’t get that job, there will be another one. Or I get my fingers flying and produce enough books to make a living. There’s always a way out of the tiger pit!

        • That’s what had me laughing at the conclusion of Bullitt. It wasn’t just busy, it was sledgehammer to the head “See what kind of guy Bullitt is?”

          But this has me thinking about what worked in some of the junk I’ve written and what didn’t. I think the complication has to be something that affects the story. For instance, in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jimmy Stewart is faced with a deadline if he has any hopes of recovering his son. At that moment guests arrive. He can’t let them know what’s going on. Here the busy aspect is important because the conflict centers on time. How will he handle this? The clock is ticking. Time is of the utmost importance.

          If a lot is riding on a successful dinner party, then the complications might should be road blocks to that success. The stove goes out. Some items are delivered to the wrong address. And so forth and so on. But if the tale centers on solving a murder and the dinner party has nothing to do with solving it, then it just becomes static. Might be fun if not covered in depth, but “This is not the complication you’re looking for” might apply.

    • Save the Cat separates the ordinary person in an extraordinary situation from the extraordinary person in an ordinary situation. So Joe Nextdoor trying to handle the aliens in the backyard is very different from Conan doing a job interview. No mention of ordinary person in ordinary situation (aka grey goo) or extraordinary person in extraordinary situation (aka Marvel comics), but if I had to pick, I’ll take some cake, thank you.

  5. Draven


  6. You may well have gotten four calls from recruiters at once because in many organizations you have to list your accomplishments for the week. You combine this with one or more procrastinators in the stream and suddenly the hiring requisitions that passed the mandatory internal recruitment period get signed by a VP before he leaves early to play golf. Those reqs hit HR, someone verifies that they are indeed eligible for outside recruiting, and gets a senior manager to sign off on them before she goes home. The line manager tells someone on her staff that she can go home once the jobs are posted on the external site. The staffer posts to a site that automagically posts to a couple of dozen job sites and heads out. Each has added their step in the process to their list of accomplishments for the week that they e-mailed whoever they report to so their week looks better to management.

    Now the job posting propagates and recruiters to the west of you see it. They’re looking to make a few more contacts before the local close of business and add them to THEIR status reports. So a recruiter from Texas or New Mexico calls you at home after 5 pm Eastern.

    • This was before five, thankfully. It was just weird.

      • Holly

        At our house it’s always 8 am Eastern Time recruiters who are native Hindi speakers. We’re Mountain Time. I have a deep and abiding grudge against recruiters as a class, but the calls are always for my husband so I polite at them instead of telling them off for waking the toddler. (There ought to be a verb form for that, you know.) Yes, we could turn the phone off, but inlaws, elderly and overseas, make that not possible.

  7. If you’re sufficiently evil-minded, you can reveal a series of problems, with the ultimate step dependent on solving the first problem, as in “There’s a hole in the bucket”.
    Of course, you’ll have to supply a creative solution, when the poor hapless protagonist finds that the conventional methods don’t work.

  8. Terry Sanders

    And then there’s a completely different kind of escalation–one that doesn’t match any of the “here’s your perfect story outline” diagrams I’ve ever seen. But I does go back a ways.

    Hit him with EVERYTHING, right at the start. Media res, in the storm, sinking, drowning, waves crashing on rocks RIGHT OVER THERE.

    He gets out of the water, somehow. Now to find shelter. Can he build a fire? Get out of those soaked clothes?

    Okay, he won’t die in the next ten minutes.

    So next morning the storm’s died down. So is there any water around here?

    Okay, how about food? No?, Which way to find some?

    All right, hunger and thirst are under control. Maybe a better shelter than that rock he was hiding under?


    By the time the Swiss Family Robinson was done, it had been ten years–and the island was so tamed that the rescue ship’s captain was talking about a return expedition to drop off colonists. With Governor Robinson’s permission, of course.*

    Very different escalation, as you can see. The Menace doesn’t get bigger, the hero’s hopes get higher. And so do his ambitions.

    CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY was quite similar in structure, though not in tone. Like the novel it was inspired by, Kipling’s KIM. The hero doesn’t fight an overpowering foe, he grows–and finds challenges to match his new stature. The escalation isn’t in danger, it’s in opportunity.

    And hope. We can win a greater victory than we imagined! All we have to do is bear down a little harder…


    *The heavy gun emplacements covering the harbor made that more than a formality…

    • I suspect it’s not done more because it can be difficult to pull off, and create a story that matches up to the beginning. Of course, I grew up on the Swiss Family Robinson, so I have a particular affection for it. It would be fun to write a SF version. Probably been done, though.

      • Terry Sanders

        I understand that LOST IN SPACE was supposed to be precisely that–which proves your point, I suppose. 🙂

        I gather Ryk Spoor recently did something on this line, as a sequel to his BOUNDARY, etc., series (the Bemmius Cycle? Good a name as any…).

        In many ways, THE MARTIAN was something of this kind of story, though both Mr. Weir and the movie producers just HAD to crank up the tension in the approved modern fashion.