How Inception Raises Its Stakes

How Inception Raises Its StakesIn order to be good to their readers, authors have to be pretty nasty to their characters. An epigrammatic writing prompt once suggested:

Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character. Then think of 10 ways to make it worse.

That is how you up the stakes—by presenting your characters with hefty odds and your readers with no choice but keep turning pages.

In his hit movie Inception, writer/director Christopher Nolan offers a masterful example of how to raise the stakes


Start By Showing What Is at Stake

The first half of the movie shows his team of characters preparing for a difficult job. Before they even get to the job itself, Nolan has already proven many things are at stake for these people, including amnesty, freedom, happiness, and even sanity.

These things, in themselves, are enough to convince viewers to invest themselves in the characters and to bite their fingernails at the prospect of the trickiness of the upcoming job.

But Nolan didn’t stop there.

Inception Planning Scene

Raise the Stakes Via Complications

When the characters do arrive at the job site, they are immediately hit with a wave of unexpected complications.

Inception Leonardo DiCaprio You're Waiting for a Train

Practically everything that could go wrong does:

  • The characters are surrounded by an army of violent assailants.
  • They discover their standard safeguards are no longer in place.
  • Their timeline is shortened drastically.
  • The secrets of one character in particular threaten to crash down on all of their heads.

Nolan accomplishes all these complications in just a few minutes, thanks to their natural evolution from his plot. And the result is a ramping up of adrenaline and intrigue viewers are unable to turn away from.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What is at stake for your protagonist—and how can you raise the stakes? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Perfect example! The final third of that movie was so intense, I leaned over to my husband at one point and said, “I don’t know if I’m going to make it through the end of this movie.” As in, I felt like I couldn’t handle the physical and mental intensity of it all. But that ended up being one of the reasons I loved it so much. 🙂

  2. Uping the stakes is such a great idea!! This is going in my file!!

  3. @Lydia: Nolan’s movies are always intense. I had to see it twice to fully absorb it.

    @Michelle: Can’t go wrong with upping the stakes. Readers will always thank you@

  4. I’m adding so many stakes to my novel that I feel like a vampire hunter! In one plot line, the space capsule crashes into the International Space Station’s docking ring, one astronaut is killed, the others spacewalk to the station and face a critical oxygen shortage, the unmanned re-supply rocket misses (actually happened last month!), the rescue spacecraft is struck by lightning during launch (happened), and everyone’s exposed to a deadly virus. I can’t stop!

  5. Great example. I absolutely fell in love with that movie. Stakes are what keeps the reader flipping the pages! I could probably add some more…

    Great vlog!

  6. @Bonnie: Hopefully that will mean your readers won’t be able to stop turning pages!

    @Erica: Definitely one of the best movies of the summer.

  7. Excellent information. This is so true. This was a huge focus of mine during my latest rewrites.

  8. What would we do without rewrites to catch all those first-draft mistakes?

  9. The Doctor Who episode “Time of the Angels” is a great example of that!

  10. Another reason to watch Doctor Who!

  11. No joke and you forgot “concentrating as hard as possible” !

    Great example… Thanks again, KM! :o)

  12. Don’t you love twisty, brainy stories?

  13. Nice article. Nolan is a great storyteller and fantastic when using a camera as a medium to the story.

    He even planned the “inception” idea to our head 🙂 Ive been thinking about coincidence lately while im writing a screenplay

    Everyone seems agreed that a plot can’t replace all causal connections with a string of coincidences. If everything happens by convenient accident, then we can’t form any expectations about what will happen next. And without expectations, our cognitive and emotional engagement with the story is likely to be slight. Moreover, designing a story packed with coincidences isn’t that hard. Children do it all the time. But most artistic traditions thrive on their constraints. If anything at all can happen to advance or conclude your plot, you’re playing tennis without a net. The interesting challenge for a storyteller in traditional forms is to create a pattern of incidents that arouses our curiosity, builds up suspense, and presents surprises that turn out to be, in retrospect, cunningly prepared for—all the while playing on our emotions.

    Yet, and again: No coincidence, no story. Sometimes, the plot’s forward momentum needs encounters and discoveries not planned by the characters. So how can these convenient accidents be made to serve narrative craft?

  14. Great post. :)Upping the stakes always makes the reader happy.

    BTW, since I normally watch your vlog on my BlackBerry (and since I have to go to You Tube to do that instead of getting it off your site) I hadn’t noticed you added a transcript. Thanks! Great idea.

  15. Great post.

    I sat watching it gripping my seat it was that intense. Upping the stakes is a brilliant idea. It’s hard to watch/read, but you can’t stop. 🙂

  16. Chase your character up the tree, and throw rocks at him. Great post on raising the stakes.

  17. There’s always a tinkle in my eye when I’m nasty to my characters

  18. @Alfrits: Well said. The trick, for us as writers, is to disguise the coincidences in a way that makes readers (and viewers) less aware of them *as* coincidences.

    @Lorna: I know not everyone has the ability (or desire) to easily download videos, so now they can read the posts, if they prefer.

    @Lindsay: Writers have to be gutsy. When we love our characters, it can be difficult to put them through nasty situations – but we just have to remind ourselves that we need to love our readers more!

    @Ant: Exactly – and maybe have a rabid dog barking up the tree and an angry bird attacking from the branches!

    @Carolyn: We writers are such a deliciously sadistic lot, aren’t we?

  19. I love this! I used to, back in the olden days of last spring, not be able to do this – I kept wanting to save my characters. Probably because I’m a therapist but I digress. Now I love making their lives tough, tougher, toughest. Because when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And everyone likes to see this – it gives them hope in their own situations…

  20. Funny you should say that… I was just reading the website of a published author who is also a therapist. She mentioned that she originally had a difficult time refraining from immediately helping her characters solve their problems!

  21. I just love these things about Nolan. He keep viewers so overwhelmed until the end. Even blinking your eyes seems impossible in fear of loosing something important. And I really loved Inception as much as I love other Nolan’s movies.
    I also like the fact about his movies that, at least at first watch, viewers are always thinking what actually was the end. He somehow manages to keep the question mark in our mind even after we have watched it until the end, so we most of us have to re-watch the movie to completely grasp it.


  1. […] High stakes are a staple of good storytelling. Ask Kristen Lamb or Larry Brooks or K.M. Weiland. […]

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