In your novel-in-progress, how high are the stakes for your main character? Low stakes, also known as the So What? factor, is a common problem of first novels. Your character needs a goal and some obstacles trying to prevent him/her from reaching the goal. But what if the goal isn’t sufficiently high to keep the reader engaged?
Writing Tip for Today: The diagnostic for determining if the stakes are high enough is simple. Ask yourself, “If my protagonist doesn’t achieve the goal, so what?” if you find yourself sputtering to explain, your story may need higher stakes. Here are some ideas to pump up the stakes:
- Time Is Running Out: By imposing a time barrier, the reader and the characters automatically must act sooner rather than later. In a student example, the protagonist is trying to save a special book containing crucial information, from a fire. The protagonist manages to pluck the book from the flames, but then says, “I’ll look at it later.” Not! Writing, “Later,” effectively lets all the tension out of the scene. You can be sure the writer is going to revise the scene’s ending.
- Make the Goal Bigger: Increasing the negative consequences of not meeting the goal adds to the tension. If you enlarge the problem, try to balance both the global and the personal stakes for the protagonist. Thus, if there’s a deadly strain of virus threatening to kill off the masses, the story has more impact if the threat also becomes personal–say, if the character’s mom or best friend suffers and might die from said virus.
- Make the Protagonist Care More About the Goal: The reader as well as the protagonist must see the goal as worthy. If the character is lukewarm about solving the problem, it will be harder for the reader to feel passion about it. A passionate character might be able to cause an insignificant goal to seem of utmost importance.
Try This! Using the above ideas or others for raising stakes, think of at least two ways in which you might increase the dramatic tension in your story.