Story Stakes and the So What Factor

Many beginning novelists don’t know what their story is about–or else it’s about “a lot of things.” They start with their character and situation, but then allow that character to roam all over the situation’s landscape. It’s just like real life, you say.What’s the matter with that?
The problem is that fiction isn’t life. Life meanders, but a story must have a direction. Determining the character’s motivation and obstacles to a goal may seem elementary, but it’s surprising how many writers dump a protagonist at the side of a road and then want to call the novel “character-driven.” Giving a character a clear goal is vital, and the reader is promised a story about the journey to that goal.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s say you’ve given your protagonist a clearly-defined goal and some worthy obstacles. Next, think of the stakes in the story. Are they high enough? A simple question assesses the height of the stakes: Ask yourself, if my protagonist doesn’t reach the goal, SO WHAT? What’s the worst that will happen if the protagonist fails? A story that sticks with you almost always contains very high stakes, either physical, mental or emotional. Characters that are larger-than-life, ordinary characters doing extraordinary things and building in a gut emotional appeal helps lift any story’s stakes, according to Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel. Try to think of at least 3 ways to raise the stakes of your story.

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.

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