Raising the Novel’s Stakes

Cats in Hats!

Cats in Hats!

I signed up for a free download from a well-known author who teaches novel writing. It was supposed to show me stakes-raising techniques for the novel. Alas, no free (or otherwise) download appeared, so I’ll venture a few ideas of my own.

Writing Tip for Today: High stakes are crucial to the novel, because high stakes make readers care. If your story doesn’t pass the “so what?” test, try upping the stakes in one of these ways:

Characters with Resignation Interrupted

Whether your character wants a beau or a bow and arrow, it’s crucial to write a character who is passionate and even desperate to obtain something. The more your character obsesses, the better for the story. A character who wants something but if she doesn’t get it is okay with that–at least in the beginning–is going to face resistance from readers. I’m kind of a reluctant romantic, for example, and when I’ve tried to write romance, I don’t seem to center on the right “wants” for the potential couple. I think it’s tricky to put the right amount of “I hate you” in with “I can’t live without you,” and my character’s ambivalence dooms the story before it can get going. The best romance elements come from a character who has perhaps all but given up hope and who is surprised by her emotional awakening as the love interest enters the story. Readers love reversals and they love surprise, so nearly any story idea will benefit from this model of Resignation Interrupted. It tells readers that hope lives, that we should never give up on our dreams.

Larger than Large in Life

If you can imbue your character with traits we all recognize and admire, that character comes to symbolize everyman (or woman). This is how larger-than-life characters capture readers’ imaginations. Traits such as loyalty (even loyalty to the wrong things in the beginning), generosity of spirit (Scrooge was unlikable for 99% of a “A Christmas Carol,)” and ability to forgive are traits we all admire. I have had students whose character was a sociopath, and these types of characters almost always fail. It takes great skill and understanding of humanity to successfully write characters without consciences. That’s because overall, readers need to see their best selves in a story. This doesn’t mean you write perfect characters. Of course you give them flaws and vulnerabilities. But the values of the heart are where readers gravitate. Even Dirty Harry had principles from which he would not stray.

Suspending Disbelief

When I ask what their character will do to gain the story goal, many students reply that he or she will “risk death.” The ultimate, right? Yet if readers aren’t convinced the goal is worth dying for, the story still can’t pass the “So What?” question. It’s up to us as story engineers to construct a world where readers are willing to suspend disbelief, to go along with the stakes as important enough to risk one’s life. Black Friday scuffles notwithstanding, I doubt we can believe in risking one’s neck for the hot Star Wars toy. And while we’re on the subject, in my experience, stakes revolving around money or its lack usually don’t create enough emotional investment to hook readers. Again, it’s the matters of the heart we are most concerned with: how we treat each other, whether we belong or are excluded and the quest for love and acceptance will grab readers’ attention and raise the stakes automatically.

Your Turn: Do you have a favorite trick to raise a story’s stakes? What is it?

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

3 comments on “Raising the Novel’s Stakes

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