Being a Better Writer: Escalation

Welcome back readers! I trust you had an enjoyable weekend? For many of you given current conditions I imagine it wasn’t too different from the actual week.

So, a quick bit of news: A Trail for a Dragon is now in Alpha! That’s right, readers have been poring over it and offering feedback, suggestions, and more of the usual Alpha stuff. Plus enjoying it. From some of the comments, quite a bit! If you are an Alpha Reader but haven’t gotten to it yet, please do ASAP, as there’s a deadline on this story and it’s always better to beat those as cleanly as possible!

Second bit of news: Expect more Fireteam Freelance this weekend! We’ve got episode three almost ready for its big appearance, so if you’re a fan of Adah, Ursa, Anvil, and Owl, be sure to come back this weekend for their latest op!

Okay, that’s the news. Anything else that wasn’t brought up will get it’s own post later this week. So now let’s get to the nuts and bolts of this post so many of you came for, and let’s talk about escalation.

I’d wager that a few of you came this far simply on the curiosity of what I mean by the term escalation. So without much further ado, let’s get into that.

Naturally, I’m going to start with the dictionary definition of escalation, as it directly concerns what we’re talking about. A quick Google of the word will give you the following explanation, that escalation is “a rapid increase or rise,” suggesting also that another definition would be “an increase in the intensity or seriousness of something.”

“Ah!” most of you are probably thinking at this moment. “So we’re talking about rise and fall, the pacing, and climaxes!”

Well yes and no, actually. Yes because in talking about escalation we are going to delve a bit into that rise and fall, but no because we aren’t going to be focusing on it. Those of you that are long-time readers of this site may, upon thinking back to prior posts on ‘rise and fall” (among other similar topics) may recollect as we move further that today’s topic was mentioned in passing in each of those, along with a few other posts.

Okay, so enough beating around the bush. What am I getting at? Today, I wanted to talk about escalation, yes, but of characters and stories. More accurately, when it’s time to stop escalating.

A long, long time ago, I did a post on “sequels and sequel regression” where I talked about why so many sequels to successful properties end up leaving the audience lukewarm or even let-down. Part of the issue, I contended, was that sequels to stories meant as single-entries (in other words, not planned to be a sequel but given one anyway) often have issues building a new narrative growth arc for the characters and setting because they’ve done their growing in the first story. So in order to give them something to “grow” over the course of the sequel, stories will often make the protagonists regress on skills, talents, or character from a previous work so that they can have the ‘growth arc’ again.

Same happens in books. Ever read a standalone story where the protagonist faces off against a titanic threat, pushes through, wins the day … and then gets a sequel where all their work is undone and they have to fight against an even bigger, deadlier baddie that was a much bigger threat than the original?

That’s escalation. The protagonist beat the antagonist who could threaten a city, so now we need to have them face someone who threatens the country. Then the world. And then we got renewed, so how about the solar system? Can’t do that every season, so let’s threaten the world again. And again. And … now the universe! Multiverse time!

Most of you, I’m sure, have seen something where this sort of constant escalation happens. And yes, I will point fingers and note that serialized television, particularly anime, is quite guilty of this. Long-running series escalate, and quickly to levels that become ludicrous.

So why does this happen? What drives this sort of thing? Well, it’s pretty simple. A flat story is boring—nothing is happening. A story that builds down is gradually getting more and more dull (we’re talking in terms of rising or falling action). But a story that builds up, well … that’s what we all like!

Rising tension. Rising action. A climax. We’ve spoken of this before numerous times on the site. These are staple hallmarks of a good story. Things build. Characters develop and grow. This is all well and good.

But what happens when the story just keeps going? How long  can you keep things on that rising trend? Our protagonist overcame their fear of snakes in book one … so now one of their weaknesses is gone in book two. Do we give them a new fear? Or do we just roll along with them now having fewer weaknesses?

If they have fewer weaknesses, how do we make them struggle? What can we throw against them? Suppose our protagonist became a mighty superhero at the end of the last story, finally overcoming their weaknesses and becoming incredibly powerful? How do we put a threat in front of them now that matches or exceeds their capabilities?

At this point some of you are probably thinking “Dragonball problem” and yes, you’re right. Dragonball is a prime demonstration of constant, never-ending escalation (though it can be a fun one). For those unfamiliar with the series, Dragonball  is a long-running manga and anime about the adventures of a protagonist who loves fighting and adventuring. That’s all you really need to know. Oh, and he’s an alien who will always continue to become stronger as long as he trains and practices.

When the show started, they were a child marooned on Earth (a bit like Superman, yes, but more akin to the Monkey King). And as a child, he fights mobsters, gangs, and eventually faces off against an army.

The next part of the series moved on to perpetually stronger alien invaders, from the type that could (at first) just kill the protagonist and his friends, but then to one who could wipe out cities, and then one that could kill planets. Because if the protagonist could beat the prior one, the new one needed to be stronger in order for the fights the series was made up of to last.

But the demand was strong, so things kept going. From a planet killer they moved on to a planet absorber who ate everyone it defeated and got stronger. Then  from there a bigger threat emerged who could not only consume its defeated opponents, but that had the goal of wiping out the galaxy. And then the universe.

It didn’t stop there. Last this still-running series went, it was a multiverse battle, with warriors from the various multiverses battling one another for the right to exist (with the losers’ entire universe erased from existence).

And they’ll probably find a way to crank the stakes up from there too. But as long-lived as the series has been, when you lay it out like that it does start to sound pretty ridiculous. But each time the writers (or writer?) reached the end of an arc, they’ve written themselves into a corner with the constantly escalating threat levels of the characters involved. In order for the next foe to be a credible threat, they needed to match the character’s new power in some way. And so … escalation. Over, and over, and over again.

Now I’m not trying to rag on Dragonball here. It’s a fun guilty-pleasure action series. It’s also excellent proof that you can get away with constant escalation in your stories as long as your audience is willing to just kind of laugh it off.

Which isn’t a problem for Dragonball. But it might be a problem for whatever series or sequel you’re planning on working on.

Reeling this post back, all good stories are going to have growth and progression. Of characters, of story, of difficulty. Our character needs to learn a truth about themselves, for example, or they need to overcome a difficult challenge by learning a new skill.

That’s escalation. Of plot, of character, or of the stakes.

But because that’s such an integral part of a story, when said story continues on past where we expected it to go, that means we need to keep “raising the stakes.”

Ever read a sequel where it’s suddenly revealed that the big bad of the first story wasn’t really all that big a bad, and was in fact the subordinate of a much bigger bad that no one had heard of until now?

Yup. Surprise bigger villainy, there’s always a bigger fish, etc.

Now again, I want to make something very clear, here. I’m not trying to say that escalation is bad. Not at all. What I’m saying is that for any story to continue on following a specific set of characters, escalation is a requirement, and it’s one that you should be planning for.

Or, if you aren’t given that chance and are preparing to embark on a sequel to a work that never expected one, then you should be aware of what sort of issues escalation has given rise to in other, originally sequel-less works.

Escalation planned for and done well makes for a great story. Part of the reason the Marvel Cinematic Universe performed as well as it did right from the start and through a staggering twenty-two films of sequential story is because from the very beginning all of them were working toward that point. From the very first film it was “We’re looking at collecting a team of supers just in case there’s a threat we need them for” and sure enough there was. It took twenty films to arrive, but the entire time we caught glimpses and hints of what was coming and what the entire series was built toward.

The MCU even showed a few good ways to regress characters and have them overcome new weaknesses that came with their new strengths and success. Iron Man 3 saw Tony Stark being pushed to realize that he was still Iron Man without his suit when his fevered experimentation and impulsive actions led him to being without it. Civil War brought in a completely unpowered villain who chose to attack the team’s mental and emotional weak points rather than their super strength or powers and actually succeeded in tearing them apart over their personal differences.

Now, this wasn’t always well-executed, but you’d be hard pressed to find another film series that even comes close to pulling off a twenty-two film arc like that and succeeding. But all that escalation worked because it was laid from the start, rather than being something that was dreamed up at the last minute. No one at Marvel Studios got to film nineteen and then turned to everyone else and said “So who do we want the big bad of all the films to be?” No, we got our first glimpse of Thanos in film sixa full twelve films before he finally got personal.

Escalation planned for can be fantastic. Unplanned for can still work … but is a lot harder, since you might have put yourself (or your characters) into corners you’ll have to break out of first.

Again, and I want to emphasize this, escalation is not bad. It’s a needed part of any story. The stakes have to rise, the characters have to learn, etc. But if you’re not careful, and keep escalating over and over again (even with a plan) you can find yourself in a rut.

Which brings me to the second point I wanted to get at with today’s post. Escalation is good, yes. A vital part of any story.

So is an ending.

Part of escalating your story is knowing when it’s time to wind down and bring things to a close. Yes, you could write more story set with those characters and in that universe … but you know that doing so would lead to a story not as strong. With less growth to have. Something that would make the current ending unfulfilling, perhaps. Or meaningless.

In other words, just as escalation is a required part of any story, so is an ending, a point where the escalation stops and winds down, for good. You have to have an ending. A closure. A fixed point of ‘They all lived happily ever after’ or whatever ending it is that you’ve chosen. But eventually, the escalation has to stop. Continually running on and on? It just wears people out. Especially when it falls into repetition.

Give your stories an ending. Plan your escalation, and when it’s reached its conclusion, let that conclusion happen. Don’t extend it on and on until readers are sick of it and you’ve mined it for every idea it was worth. Move on to a new project. A new story, setting, or characters. Let. It. End.

Again, don’t walk away from this post thinking that escalation is bad. It’s like characters, or a setting: A good story has it. Escalation will be in there.

But endless escalation, constantly grinding up the stakes and the characters, just becomes exhausting. You need a conclusion. An ending.

To give one last analogy, many people love hiking up mountains as a hobby. It’s fun, you see neat things, etc. And a hike up a mountain will often involve a lot of climbing but some resting “low points” along the way.

But eventually, you reach the peak. You look around, take it all in, and then you go back down. The mountain has a high peak that it reaches, but you don’t go further. There’s an end, where you head back down, get in your car, and go home.

But a story that always escalates and never reaches an end? That’s like an endless mountain. Even if you like climbing mountains, odds are you’re going to get sick and tired of this particular one eventually, and start to wish you’d just reach the peak already so you can go home.

So give your stories a conclusion. Don’t continually escalate, but let things rise until it’s time to let them stop. Let your characters have what they’ve earned and call it good.

So good luck. Now get writing.

Don’t forget! Being a Better Writer exists thanks to the aid of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, Lightwind, and Thomas! Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!

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