I’m gonna pass along a bit of advice that I’ve applied to my own writing: “If all else fails, use fire.”
Full disclosure: it’s not my phrase. Legend of Zelda fans may recognize it as a non-player character’s hint from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. In that case the character means it literally, which makes sense in a universe where the solution to most problems is to either kill everything in the room or break everything in the room.
I, on the other hand, do not mean it literally. For me it’s sort of a variation on a fairly common bit of writing advice for when you’re stuck: think of the worst possible thing that could happen in the story at that moment and make it happen – such as setting the character’s surroundings on fire. As long as it makes sense, it usually raises the stakes somehow.
For example, think of the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty. Aurora pricks her finger and falls into her death-like slumber. Meanwhile, Prince Philip is on his way to meet her at the cottage where she used to live. What’s the worst possible thing that could happen at that moment? Maleficent and her goons could ambush him at the cottage and capture him. Technically, it could be worse if they just killed him – but that wouldn’t have built to the right climax for that particular story. (This being a classic Disney movie, it was building to a happy ending, which wouldn’t have been possible if they killed Prince Philip off.)
So yes, there are some limitations to this advice. Generally speaking, most writers have a sense of where they want their story to go, or at least end up. So doing something that wouldn’t work in the story just because it’s the worst thing that could happen isn’t a good idea either.
As an example for something that wouldn’t work: in the current draft of Unlucky Creatures, one of the characters encounters what he believes to be his friend, who he has a crush on. She confesses that she feels the same way, but after spending a few minutes with her he realizes that she isn’t actually who she appears to be; she’s a shapeshifter who’s messing with his head for the lulz.
It would be the worst possible moment for that character. But the more I think about it, the less sense it makes. Yes, shapeshifters are established as being A Thing in this book’s universe, and it’s established that they use their powers solely for dickitry. But the reader knows that the only existing character who’s shown to be a shapeshifter is elsewhere during this incident, and has also had no previous contact with the target character at all. And introducing a new character so late in the book solely so they can mess with somebody’s head then disappear forever makes no damn sense. So I’ll have to take it out and replace it with something else.
What should I replace it with? Who knows. Maybe I’ll just use fire.