Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Or Else What?

No really, or else what?

Writers are often told to "raise the stakes". This little chestnut of advice has been making it's way from writer to writer for years. So much so, the advice sort of falls on deaf ears. "Yeah yeah," You think, "And right afterward I am going to show, not tell."

I think it's because that simply raising the stakes isn't enough. I find myself scratching my head when I am trying to raise the stakes in the book. I already have death, explosions, world ending much worse can things get? Its worse for writer who don't write extremely action packed plots. What would happen is someone told F. Scott Fitzgerald to raise the stakes? The Great Gatsby and the Zombie Apocalypse?

The problem is most writers leave off the "or else XYZ will happen." Sure, the subway station might be in danger of exploding, and people could die, but those are faceless people. They fail to engage our sympathies beyond, "Oh, that would be a tragedy. I wonder what's on TV?"

You have failed to give the protagonist, and your readers, an ultimatum. When you're building the stakes in your book, when you're laying down the gauntlet for your characters to traverse across, you need to show why these events are devastating to that main character. Make it personal. Show why it matters. 

Show us what the main character's life will be like if this terrible event does happen, and why it's worse. This goes for quiet, coming of age stories and well as techno-thrillers. Why does the spelling bee matter so much?

And excellent example of small stakes having a large impact is one of my favorite childhood books, Words By Heart. Lena is an African American girl who can memorize long passages. She enters a Bible quoting contest. Normally, contests like this shouldn't matter. It's just a contest. No one is dying. 
And yet we care, because Lena thinks if she wins the contest, her father will be proud of her. Her classmates will respect her. 

Suddenly, winning a school contest matters. Suddenly we see the stakes are raised. And we care. 

The next time you feel like your plot is dragging, or your main character is just going through the motions, stop and think: what will happen if his goals aren't reached? Why does he care?

How do you like to raise the stakes in your novel?


  1. This is a great post. And you're right. Writers have heard the "raise the stakes" call to arms for a long time. I think though, the "raise the stakes" thing is more important now than it has been before. The marketplace is so much more crowded that writers must really set their books apart in meaningful ways. Sure you could look back at a lot of histrically written books that might not have gotten published today if they were by debut authors. But you can't compare the two. Our time is where we live and where we write. These are the rules of the game now. Raise the stakes... or else.
    Thanks for this post. It actually feeds into a series I'm doing for the last two and next few tuesdays about plotting. Stop by if you have a chance.


  2. This is interesting that you posted this at this time for me. I'm struggling with this concept of "raising the stakes" a cyborg, fairy-tale I'm writing. Everything in the short story works well; but with all the technology I've invested in the story, the ending just doesn't measure up. The world has recovered from the disaster - in its stumbling way - so, why the quest?

    I don't know that it will be marketable to make the twist that the world is not at stake afterall; only the cyborg's personal agenda for his long lost love mattered.

    You're helping me to think about this plotline.



  3. @ Christopher: that is a very good point. Making your plot matter to the characters and the readers increases it's marketability as well.

    I will definitely stop by!

    @Donna: I actually like your stakes! I don't think stakes have to be world ending, just so long as it matters to the main character. Glad to help, and your story sounds very interesting!