Sep 13, 2011

Raising The Stakes


As writers, we're always hearing the importance of raising the stakes.  Not enough tension in a scene?  Raise the stakes.  Midpoint dragging?  Raise the stakes.  Reader doesn't care about the main character enough?  Raise the stakes.

Like most writing advice, we can hear something so many times that it fails to have any meaning for us anymore.  Not everything can be a life or death situation, right?  And if it is, how do we top that when it's time to raise the stakes later in the book?  So now it's life or death for me and my best friend.  In the next scene it's me, my friend, and the dog.  In the next section, all those plus two more dogs.  Now it's the two of us, the three dogs, and the orphanage.  Right.  Plus their goldfish.  Fine.  Now are the stakes people happy?

Nope.

Why?  Because too often we're looking at public stakes rather than personal stakes.  Instead of asking what will happen to the world around the character, we should be asking what will happen inside the character's heart, mind, and soul.

And the great thing about this?  Our characters are complex and layered, so there are always ways to increase the stakes.

We should be asking, "What matters most to this character?"

What one thing could you threaten that would make your main character completely wig out?

How has your character structured her life to protect that one thing?  It might be a belief system or a moral code.  It might be a need to nurture those in need. It might be an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.

You know your characters better than anyone.  If you really wanted to make them hate you, what buttons would you push?  Could you make them so angry they'd never talk to you again?

Now you're getting somewhere.

Raise the stakes.

20 comments:

  1. Fantastic points, Johanna. You're right, we do tend to hear the nuggets of writing wisdom too often. Taking a close look at them from time to time can be an eye opener, as your article was for me. Thanks for this. By the way, I love the way you edited the accompanying photo.

    Take care,
    JC

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Johanna. This is a good reminder about the different types of conflict that can impact our beloved characters.

    ReplyDelete
  3. “What matters most to this character?” A perfect way to focus on raising the stakes. Thanks, Johanna.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I always feel so terrible when I raise the stakes. Sometimes I find myself telling the computer "I'm sorry." But it does make for a better story. Thanks Johanna.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is something I struggle with so I appreciate your insight. Thanks for another fantastic post, Johanna!

    ReplyDelete
  6. You have a scary ability to hit the right note for me every single time in these blogs. I needed this reminder. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Personal crisis is so important. It is also one of the hardest things to balance in a book. Too much and you wonder how the character can keep going. Too little and you don’t care. Great blog.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thanks, Jess. It's amazing how many times I can hear advice without really understanding it. I'm glad you liked the picture too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  9. Yes--and our beloved characters can't really shine without a great deal of it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Yes--and sometimes thinking like the bad guy really helps me see what needs to happen.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I've apologized to my characters too. I'm still apologizing to some of them.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Good thing we also get to make them strong enough to come through it, yeah?

    ReplyDelete
  13. That's funny, Liz. Also? Really cool. :D

    ReplyDelete
  14. True. And the crisis has to fit the story.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Johanna, thank your for the all important reminder. Gosh, I hate this part of the process. I really, really, don't want to cause these people pain, but...a writers got to do just that. Yuck.

    ReplyDelete
  16. This was well said, Johanna, but I'm with Lynn. I hate to put them in jeopardy. Loved the last comment about the buttons we'd push to make our characters mad at us. Nice concept.
    Marsha

    ReplyDelete
  17. Glad I read this before I finaled
    that story for Friday. Another angle to inspect it from, and that's good. Maybe I'll cut the dog's backstory though, still over 1100.

    Thanks for this Johanna, fine words as always strung togeather all purty an' such.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Thanks, John! I even like hearing you talk about your writing. The dog's backstory amuses me. :)

    ReplyDelete
  19. I just wrote a blog post about this same topic! Putting more conflict in our work is one of the hardest things writers do, I know, I struggle with it myself. You've got some good suggestions here for how to actually do it.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Raising The Stakes | Johanna's big thoughts - http://t.co/42Hm9ToA #amwriting

    ReplyDelete