High Stakes

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?

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.

2 comments on “High Stakes

  1. As Im reading this post, I realized that even while Im going through my third edit of my WIP, I havent included a true external conflict to go with my character’s inner conflict. Do you have any tips for adding one into a MS when it’s already finished? ie. put it as narrative, etc. That may be hard to answer but thought Id ask. 🙂

  2. Linda here. Jan, about outer conflicts. You’re right it might be hard wiothout knowing your story, but for instance, if your heroine’s inner conflict is to find true love, then her outer conflict might automatically be that of a man who doesn’t seem to know she exists. But it also could be: a disapproving mother, a sick relative, a tour of duty or a job that takes her away. Look at your supporting cast first and at least one of them should be some kind of antagonist. That qualifies! Also, placing a time squeeze or some kind of barrier (she must find him before the clock strikes twelve, as in Cinderella)often is a handy way to add in a layer of outer conflict that wasn’t there before. Hope this helps!

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