In this post, I discuss the idea of level ramping in storytelling, which is likely a term you’re not familiar with, because frankly, I made it up. There may be a better term for it, but this is what I’ve always called it.
Level ramping is a technique I use during the planning stage of writing a story.
Humans love stories, our brains seem to be hardwired for them, and we also love suspense. It’s like a drug. Even if we know the hero is going to make it out of some precarious situation, the threat of them not making it, pulls us toward the edge of our seats and draws us into the story further.
To really master this art, and keep your stories engaging, they need to be suspenseful.
Usually stories start from a single idea, and then you expand on them. But, it’s not always easy to do that. If you don’t plan properly, you are bound to ask yourself the inevitable question – What happens next? This question may sideline you for days or weeks as you mull over all different possible scenarios.
Level ramping provides a guide so that you can figure out where your story is going, and also how it ends. And all it takes is a few minutes.
How it Works
Suppose you start with a single idea: boy lost in the woods. You think that would make for an interesting premise, but you don’t know the rest of the story, including how it will end.
What I do, is start with the initial idea, and then dial up the stakes by one level.
So if a boy is walking in the woods with a friend, what would be the next level of thing that would suck after that?
It would suck if they got lost. So that’s what I would do in the first act — the boys get lost.
Okay, what else?
It would suck if they had to stay overnight in the dark, cold and scary woods.
Great, then what?
Wouldn’t it suck if it started to rain in the middle of the night?
Wouldn’t it suck if they got bit by inspects…
Attacked by a bear…
One of the boy’s loses an arm…
So just by dialing up the suck (escalating the tension and impending danger), I can figure out pretty quickly all the action beats. I can keep going.
Suppose one of the boys finds a group of campers, a seemingly positively event in a serious of unpleasant circumstances. But what if the campers turned out to be bad men, such as cannibals, and they already had the other friend. Maybe that’s how the boys reunite with each other. Maybe then they steal some gear and escape, they get chased, fall into a river and almost die. In the end, rescue comes and they’re saved.
So as you can see, I was just making that up as I went along, and I just told a complete story from start to finish simply by ramping up the suspense.
Recently I watched a movie called The 5th Wave, which does this well. I’m not sure if the book does this or not, because I haven’t read it. But for the purpose of this lesson, we’ll use the movie version.
Before I start, I’m going to spoil this movie so if you haven’t seen it, maybe read this post after you see the movie.
So the premise of the movie is these aliens come to earth and attempt to wipe out the human race and inhabit earth. There are five waves of destruction which is a form of level ramping, but the movie focuses on the 5th Wave, which is to convince children that other humans are in fact aliens so that they kill each other.
The story follows a female protagonist – Cassie – played by Chloe Grace Moretz. Cassie lives with her father and younger brother (her mother passed away), and in the opening scenes lives a pretty normal life.
While out with her little brother, the first wave hits — a giant flood wipes out coastlines and drowns cities. Millions upon millions of people are wiped out in an instant.
Now, some writers may stop here because this premise alone could be used throughout the entire story — girl surviving alien invasion, chaos ensues.
However, the movie doesn’t stop there, they ramp up the suspense.
What comes next is a gradually increase of peril that Cassie has to overcome. First, her dad dies and she has to take care of her brother by herself.
Next, her and her brother become separated. She is now on her own and must fend for herself. If the flood, the dad’s death, being separating from the brother, being on her own weren’t bad enough, she then gets shot in the leg, then kidnapped by a hunky guy, who turns out to be an alien, and so on…
Another example is The Walking Dead. Rick wakes up in a hospital only to realize a major world-wide zombie outbreak has occurred. Then his friends die, then his wife and unborn baby die, he gets captured, his hand gets chopped off, and so on.
All the writers are doing is taking an initial premise and gradually dialing up the suspense. You may come up with ideas as you go, but it can be helpful to plan it out before you start writing.