As you develop your Main Character, her motivation and her problem, you should be able to answer the question: what is at stake here? Although you want to tap into universal problems, the more specifically you answer, the more you can see just how high the stakes are and if they could be even higher.
Writing Tip for Today: By now, you may be familiar with the 3 questions: 1) what does my character want? 2) what are the obstacles? and 3) what is my character going to do to overcome obstacles and attain the goal? If you can see high tension in these stakes, great. But can those stakes be raised even more?
- Ask So What? Donald Maass says as a literary agent he often asks writers, “if your character fails, so what?” The answer will help you decide if the stakes are high enough. If the answer is: my character will be sad/mad but there are no repercussions beyond that, it may be time to make the stakes affect other characters, other societies, other worlds. If you answer, “The world will end,” then your story must follow through on the threat. If you answer, “Main Character will die,” follow-through is vital or readers will not believe you. The answer to So What? should always have inner (psychological) and outer consequences.
- Balance Your Conflicts. All “inner” conflicts make for dull or nonexistent action. All “outer” conflict feels shallow. A blend of both is usually necessary in order to create believable characters and worthwhile stakes. You might try listing all the various conflicts your story deals with and seeing how many are mostly psychological or emotional and how many are tangible and real. Try to balance the two factors.
- Be Specific! When you say, “If character doesn’t meet goal, life as we know it will end,” it might entice a reader but YOU need to know exactly what this means. Are the Kling-ons going to take over? Is your character going to join a convent? If the bad guy’s caught, will the President be implicated? Map out your specific goals/consequences and then, if it doesn’t pass the “so what?” test, pile on the problems.