Writing High Stakes Stories

In writing fiction, we talk a lot about making sure your
character wants something. Like, really really wants it. Yet the key to writing
effective fiction is to dig deep into that “want.”

Writing Tip for Today: How can writers create compelling
stories with high stakes?

Big Wants

Many times, new writers begin with a nebulous idea of their
character’s wants or goals. If you’re a pure pantster, you might start with a
character who is aching for something—but he/she doesn’t know quite what. Or,
you as writer don’t spell it out clearly for readers.

As you frame your story (whether in draft or revision), see
if you can raise the stakes you’ve already put in place. One way to do this is
to add psychological or emotional baggage. The protagonist wants to marry a
doctor because she promised her dying mother. The character needs to unmask the
killer to avenge for a trauma suffered in her/his youth. By adding in a
motivator like this, you can elevate a basic plot with compelling human
reasons. And these reasons are what your readers can and will identify with as
they read.

Another trick is to use concentric circles of impact for your character. Yes, the want/goal impacts your character. But what about the rest of the relationships? The neighborhood? The town or school? The world or universe? By layering in consequences for a failed goal at each level, the story takes on a much bigger (and more vital) tone. If the character fails, not only does she/he not attain the goal, the character’s world will be changed too.

So What?

The So What test helps you decide if your stakes are worthy
of the readers’ time. If the answer to the question is, “Well, my character
will be sad,” increase the consequences. In genre fiction, these goals are
likely more overt, but in character-driven or mainstream stories, goals may be
harder to define and more nuanced in the writing.

If you think about your character’s emotional state, a good
way to approach these emotional/psychological goals is by doing a little
thought experiment. Picture the stages of grief, hopelessness, despair, or
defeat your character might pass through if the goal keeps getting away. Your
story may not include such radical outcomes, but knowing them will help you get
past “So What?” and help you write each stage more authentically.

Where There’s Smoke

Writers know that the story goals they give must change the character externally. She gets the guy. He nabs the killer. She saves the galaxy. But what about internal changes? An enlightening post by Lisa Cron gives us a new way to propel our protagonists. She argues that what the protagonist thinks will solve the problem and get her what she wants is actually the thing that’s keeping her from it. Of course, your protagonist doesn’t see this, until she/he begins to change internally.

Internal change is where the writing gold hides. Your
protagonist’s internal struggle is what readers crave and what the character usually
resists changing or doesn’t believe it needs to change. According to Cron, the
question to ask yourself is: what deeply held belief is causing your
protagonist to take such misguided action?

Writers talk a lot about character motivation. This is where
your high stakes combine with scene-by-scene illustration of why and how your
character rises to meet the challenge and the ways he/she is forced to confront
change. Readers want to identify with your character. Give them high stakes and
personal struggle to change to win them over.

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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