Build up the conflict, build up the suspense. If you want a story to be a page turner, a sure fire way is to amp up the stakes. But is it possible to take it too far? Absolutely. If you’re a discovery writer or writing a series you haven’t fully formed, this can be an especially big problem.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, we see this a many times. He has a constant problem of raising the stakes so unbelievably that he makes it impossible for his characters to triumph. They’re trapped in a tree surrounded by Wargs, their losing a the war, Fordo and Sam are unable to escape Mount Doom, and without any way out – the Eagles swoop in and save the day. Tolkien was a very devout Catholic and used the Eagles to symbolize the saving grace of Christ. They are beautiful and uplifting moments in his books, but it’s a cop-out. Sorry Tolkien. Many critiques condemn the Eagles because of their “dire moment” involvement. Why not use the Eagles before things get out of hand? Well, because that would be a boring story. But it can also be disappointing when we see, “The Eagles are coming!” time and time again.
Heroes need to be able to get out of their problems believably and not conveniently. The old “you had the power with you all the time” is not believable and way too convenient. Characters need to use their wits or there needs to be an intervention that has been foreshadowed. Someone (or something) coming just in the nick-of-time, can be very exciting to a story as long as the reader is able to look back and see how it was possible.
Another dilemma with raising the stakes to impossible heights for a writer is the inability to fix it. You introduce a conflict in book 2 of your series, but by the end of book 3 you were unable to figure out how to solve the problem and then sweep it under the rug. I have seen this in some recent reads and was very disappointed with the lack of explanation. Readers will hold you to your promises, so never paint yourself intro a corner that can’t be solved without The Eagles or simply discarding the problem because you can’t solve it.
Writing is all about conflict. No one wants to read a book about someone who has it easy all the time. Raising the stakes is an important tool, so use it. But it is possible to go overboard. Remember that you’re not there to shock your readers with impossible stakes. You are there to show them that no matter how much the odds are stacked against your protagonist, the resolution will conquer each of them. This doesn’t mean that every story is a happy ending, but readers need to feel, only after they’ve finished your book, that the ending was inevitable.