How to Make a Story Interesting: Escalate the Hero’s Risk

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Story" by Robert McKee. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does your protagonist care about most? What do they have to lose?

If you want to make your story more engaging, Robert McKee recommends that you continue to escalate the risk that your protagonist faces throughout the story. Make it clear what they care about, and put them in increasing peril.

Continue reading to understand McKee’s advice for how to make a story interesting.

How to Make a Story Interesting

In life, we judge how valuable something is by how much we’re willing to risk or sacrifice for it. Thus, creating a protagonist who’s willing to risk everything they care about is the most direct way to make an audience feel like the protagonist’s actions are important and meaningful. In contrast, if your protagonist has nothing to lose, the story will feel boring and inconsequential.

So, when it comes to McKee’s advice for how to make a story interesting, he emphasizes that you must force your protagonist to risk losing what they care about most in the pursuit of a valuable goal.

(Shortform note: In Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb flips this idea, arguing that if you aren’t willing to risk something important in the pursuit of something valuable, you don’t actually value it, no matter what you claim. Taleb uses this idea to criticize those who claim to care about others solely to profit from a “virtuous” public image, for instance, a politician who claims to support egalitarian ideals to gain more political support.)

Furthermore, the pacing at which you escalate risk in your story is important: To make a story continuously interesting, you must incrementally heighten your protagonist’s risk over the course of the story, explains McKee. If the protagonist undertakes the same kinds of actions they took earlier in the story, the audience knows to expect the same kinds of results, and they’ll get bored. Instead, if you force your protagonist to take progressively riskier and more extreme actions, the audience knows that these actions will have new, interesting consequences, and they’ll be captivated.

(Shortform note: One easy strategy to naturally escalate risk in your story is to establish a ticking clock—a time limit that threatens specific consequences if your protagonist can’t accomplish their goal quickly enough. Screenwriters often include ticking clocks; for example, in The Matrix, Neo must rescue Morpheus in the simulation before Sentinels find and kill his body in the real world. With a ticking clock, your protagonist will believably take progressively riskier actions as they run out of time and become increasingly desperate.)

Story Beats Naturally Escalate Risk

McKee notes that the need for escalating risk is another reason why the beat is the basic unit of storytelling. When a protagonist’s action meets an unexpected reaction, it can escalate the risk of the protagonist’s actions in a believable way. It’s a fact of human nature that we want to claim our desires with as little risk or effort as possible. However, when the easiest, most obvious way for a protagonist to reach their goal doesn’t work, they must then try a more effortful, riskier action if they still want to reach it. After this happens enough times in a row, you’ll have believably built a story with high stakes.

For example, imagine a protagonist sees a child standing in the middle of a dangerous intersection. The protagonist yells at the child to get them to safety, but the child ignores them. This unexpected reaction forces the protagonist to take a riskier action—jump into the street and pull the child to safety.

Escalate Risk With a Character Arc

If you’ve used beats to slowly escalate the stakes of your story, but it still doesn’t feel like your protagonist has enough at risk, it may be because their goal isn’t important enough for them to believably risk everything to accomplish. If this is the case, you may need to switch your protagonist’s goal to something more important partway through the story.

This ties into the idea of a character arc—when the events of your story fundamentally change your protagonist. In many stories, the protagonist realizes that the goal they had at the beginning of the story is less important than they believed it to be, and they start pursuing a new goal that fulfills them more deeply. Then, they’re willing to sacrifice more to achieve this new goal, raising the story’s stakes. For example, in Mad Max: Fury Road, Max initially just wants to escape from slavery, but by the end of the story, he’s willing to risk death to save the lives of those he’s been traveling with.

McKee would likely argue that story beats that subvert expectations are the way to accomplish this kind of character transformation. By default, no one wants to change. However, because unexpected story beats cause the protagonist to learn more about the world than they knew before, you can use them to show your protagonist the truths necessary to spark their character change.
How to Make a Story Interesting: Escalate the Hero’s Risk

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Robert McKee's "Story" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Story summary:

  • A guide for screenwriters on how to write a gripping story
  • How to engage an audience on an emotional and intellectual level
  • The three-step process for how to write a story

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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