Once you’ve answered the three magic questions, you may be rethinking your story a bit. Many times a novel’s plot can go from okay to stellar with the addition of higher stakes. This means your character and the world he/she lives in has more to lose. Here are some possible ways to raise the stakes of your novel and (we hope) increase the interest reader will have in it:
Writing Tip for Today: High Stakes doesn’t have to mean the world is about to blow up.
- Balance the stakes. As you raise the stakes, remember to balance the inner and outer conflict. A novel in which everything takes place inside a character’s head feels confining, and a novel that never ventures inside a character’s head feels shallow. As Donald Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel, “The combination of high public stakes and deep personal stakes is the most powerful engine a novel can have.”
- If your character’s goal is to overcome his/her past, avoid the trite and overworked. If your guy is in mortal danger, give him an unexpected occupation. We all know soldiers and cops face death, but what about a hair stylist?
- Time is running out. Using time constraints gives the reader something to focus upon and if the goal must be accomplished before such-and-such a time, all the better.
- Give your character high principles. If your protagonist is fiercely loyal to some noble principle, the struggle will be hard to ignore.
- Test your character’s principles to the utmost. We each face trials everyday, but in fiction the results should be larger-than-life.
- Find the universal element in the character’s specific problem. In essay writing we speak of subtext, of how a story about a young mother’s struggle to cope with her new role might be just that on the surface, but underneath, the place where the reader makes a connection, is that we’re all struggling in this life. We’re all doing the best we can. It’s this subtext, this universal appeal, that readers are eager to find.
Try This! Write a one page character sketch of your protagonist. Include that character’s principles, personal beliefs he/she would never abandon. How are those beliefs related to the plot? Have you communicated this passion throughout the story?