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01:48 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Raising the Stakes



I glanced at my Writing Tips and discovered two things: 1) I was at the bottom. 2) The very last point was Character Dynamics—defined in such a way that my recent post on the Logic of Character fit that subject, even though I had not realize I was returning to my ongoing  project.

However, I have added a new point to my Writing Tips, so today, we can look at that one. It is:

Raise the Stakes:  To hook readers’ interest, make sure that some clock is ticking throughout the story, to keep the action moving. Check for public and private stakes.

I am of two minds on raising the stakes, as I will explain further below, but first some basics.

What do I mean by stakes? Easy. Just ask yourself: why is your character out slogging through the mud?

Is it because she lost a nickel? Is it because she was late coming home from school? Is it because her car broke down after dark? Is it because her pet rabbit escaped and she is looking for him? Is it because her mother is ill? Is it because her three-year-old wandered out into the hurricane, and she cannot find him? Is it because her young son will be killed if she does not bring the diamond from the sacred chapel?

Is it because her town, including her two children and her beloved aged grandmother, will be destroyed if she does not find the McGuffin in time?

Is it because her entire country is about to be swept away by war?  Is it because the fate of the earth is at stake and this is her last chance to save it? Is it because the Milky Way galaxy is about to be annihilated, unless she can find the Elixir of Hope? Is it because all universes in all dimensions are about to be blown away into nothing unless she can reach the History Alteration Switch in time?

That is what is meant by stakes.

Stakes are, very simply, what is at stake, what is going to be lost if the hero fails.

When I first started writing I made the same mistake many new authors make. I thought the bigger the stakes the better. I mean, if the world is going to blow up if you don’t stop the war, that’s big right? Everyone cares about the world. That’s where we keep our stuff!

The eye-opener for me was reading Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass divided stake into two parts, both of which were necessary for a good story. The two parts were personal and public.

Look at the examples above. The first paragraph is filled with personal stakes: trying to get home in the rain; trying to help your sick mom; trying to find your lost child. Those are all things that pertain to the character’s personal life. Things that particularly motivate that one person.

The third paragraph, on the other hand, is all about the public states: there is going to be a war; the earth is in danger; all universes and dimensions are on the chopping block. Those things affect everyone. They threaten the big picture.

One can write a good story that only has personal stakes…a story about a family in a small town that has little bearing on the outside world, for instance. But one cannot write a good story that has only public stakes. No matter how big the public stakes are, what we are going to care about when we read the story is how those stakes affect the main character. What is he going to lose if all life everywhere goes kablooey?

The middle example is the best one, in terms of how to interweave public and private stakes. The heroine from that story is trying to save her whole town (public stakes) including her particularly beloveds, her two little children and her aged grandmother (personal stakes.)

Public stakes make the plot more important. They increase the amount of damage that will be done if the heroes fail, so their mission is now a more serious one.

Personal stakes make the plot more interesting. They increase the character’s—and therefore the reader’s—desire to succeed by increasing the effect of the plot on the character’s personal life.

The master of increasing the stakes, by the way, is Jim Butcher. Reading his books are like riding a roller coaster. Jut when you are ready to swear on a Bible that life could not get worse for Harry Dresden, it does. Some other person or group find a way to put pressure on him or on those he loves/cares about/is willing to protect (ie either personal or public.)

If you want to know how to do this, read Butcher or a Spiderman cartoon. Or, read a Spiderman book written by Butcher. Nuff said.

Okay, putting the “how” behind us for the moment, let us move on to “why”. Why should I increase the stakes? Is it not enough that my character wants to do this and then he wants to do that and then he wants to do the other thing? Why should I artificially up the stakes to tie these actions together? Cannot my character just meander from one event to another? The characters in my favorite books do!


And there we have it.

Because, you are right. They do.

Yesterday, I heard something on the radio that really frightened me. Was it a terrorist attack? A meteor headed toward earth? No. Nothing so important. It was an ad for the Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Before we continue, let me qualify my reaction. I love C.S. Lewis. Of his books, I love Narnia and That Hideous Strength best. Of Narnia, I love the Voyage of the Dawn Treader more than all the others combined. I have probably read it more times than any book except Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three, some of Tolkien, and maybe Nine Princes of Amber (does it count as “reading” if your scouring the book for Roleplaying Secrets? Maybe not.)

So, you can imagine how much I have been looking forward to this next movie.

And yet, despite my bad experience with the third Harry Potter movie (my favorite book…but they left so much of what I liked out that I didn’t like the movie much,) it had not occurred to me to be antsy.

…until I heard on the radio: “Join them as they journey to save Narnia.”

Oh-oh! Save Narnia? From what? There’s no saving Narnia in Dawn Treader!

I rushed home and jumped on the computer, putting “journey to save Narnia” into Google. I found an interview with the director that calmed many of my fears. He explained that since the book was six unrelated adventures, they wanted something to tie the movie together, so they took a stray line or two from the book and turned it into a threat at home, to add a reason why Caspian needed to find the missing lords.

Hmm…if all this does is add a bit of structure and they do not talk about it much, I will be okay with it. I do understand the differences between books and movies. Still, I will have to see that it works before I stop worrying.

Which leads me to my point: a lot of older books do not have much in the way of stakes. There is something, but it is often slower or more indirect—the stakes in Dawn Treader were that the children from Earth had to get home again, and the only way they knew to do this was to keep going forward. Nothing big. Nothing that compelled the reader to turn pages. And yet, it is one of my all-time favorite books.


Well, among other reasons, I do not care much for tense stakes. I like my characters to have the freedom to do things without fate pushing them around.

But, I may be the only one. Stake sell.

Which comes to my point. Let me use an analogy from cooking. In the old days, people cooked food. It was good healthy food, and folks liked it. Then, someone figured out that if sweet and salty taste good, sweeter and saltier taste better. They started adding extra sugar and extra salt.

Wow! Their food was really tasty! People flocked to their cooking.

Then everyone did it. Now all the restaurants add extra salt and extra sugar and all of the sudden our taste buds have been retrained to think that this is normal and good, plain food is bland.—but our bodies have not been retrained. What was healthy then is still healthy now, except we no longer have the proper taste buds to enjoy healthy food.

But if you open a restaurant, what do you do? Do you make food the way you think you should, simple and straightforward? Or do you add all the sweet and salty stuff everyone else is, to get the business?

Writing, I think has reached a similar impasse. The existence of so many high stakes stories makes it so that low stakes stories are harder to appreciate. Yes, it is true that a good overall stakes moves a story along at a rapid pace, makes it more interesting, and keeps the reader pinned in their seat.
But does that necessarily make it a better story?
Would have I enjoyed the Dawn Treader more if Lewis had added a reason Caspian needed to hurry along? Or would some of the charm have been lost for me?

Mind you, I am not recommending that anyone fail to assign stakes to their story. I think it is especially important to assign personal stakes. Prince Caspian clearly had personal stakes invested in the voyage of his Dawn Treader. He wanted to keep his promise to look for his father’s old friends, he wanted to see the world beyond his borders, he wanted to see wonders and travel to places yet unreached. All that was wonderful.
What I am suggesting is that we use the power of public stakes sparingly….like salt. Some recipes call for a lot. I tend to pour salt onto salad in huge amounts. Other recipes could do with very little. While we want to keep our reader’s taste buds intrigued, we do not want to overwhelm a light-hearted children’s story with a ticking clock that has dynamite tied to it.

Most new writers tend to put in too little stakes rather than too much, so if uncertain, it is best to err on the side of more. But I do wonder if we are a bit too results oriented these days. I want to make sure I live in a universe where Voyage of the Dawn Treader could still be enjoyed—less my favorite book of tomorrow never be written.

 Here’s to hoping that the movie does the book justice!


Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon.


[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
Also, especially in a series, the problem with vast public stakes is that the protagonist is really very unlikely to lose them, while he may very well lose the small private stakes.

Say that I write a story about an elite counterintelligence agent who is trying to stop terrorists from blowing up Washington DC with a hydrogen bomb. Is it really likely that I'm going to choose to have him fail?

If it's a one-shot book, maybe, but then I haven't really finished my story. How does America react to the immense shock of having her capital city and many of her national leaders destroyed? Who do we launch a war against, how is it fought, what are the various consequences?

No, the only way that I can use the bomb in a final climax is if the bomb attack is thwarted (*). And the reader, if he's read more than a few technothrillers, knows this.

But will the superspy be able to keep the love of his wife? Will his friend, the perky young agent, pay the ultimate price for freedom? Will the sympathetic minor villain we introduced, who has been sucked into the conspiracy by the major villain, wind up dead or in prison? These might go either way, and hence can be credibly threatened by the plot.

Personal stakes may be smaller scale, but they are also more likely to be lost, in terms of the author's willingness to plot his tale. And since the audience knows this, those stakes can create greater suspense.

Tom Clancy violates this, with spectacularly effective consequences, in The Sum of All Fears. But he also, IMHO, drops the political ball -- I find it hard to believe that the nuclear destruction of a large portion of Denver and some 20 thousand Americans as described could have any other sequel than an American attack on Iran. History confirmed me in this opinion, brutally, starting in 2001.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)
Really nicely put! Thanks. If I write on this topic again sometime, I'll mention this point.
[User Picture]
Date:November 17th, 2010 07:45 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

Note that the bomb actually can go off, but then the bomb detonation is only a local climax: the main story is now about the war, and victory or defeat in that war will provide the major climax. And then you're not writing anything as small as a mere spy story any more -- intelligence and counterintelligence operations will be only part of a larger conflict.
Date:November 17th, 2010 08:53 pm (UTC)


Some great info. Thanks for sharing!
Date:November 18th, 2010 12:45 pm (UTC)


This was a very interesting post. I think the food analogy is great and that we are very results oriented. There are so many high stakes books out there now, we have to play in that stream to compete. But a lot of older stories don't have so much. Some of them are just nice, meandering stories with some sort of ultimate goal. I like both. I like stories that just have compelling characters and an interesting journey, but not necessarily heart thumping, demon on my tail, got to save the world now stuff happening. BUT I like those as well, and I think I tend to write high-stakes myself. I think both have their benefits.

I'm reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series now, and while there is an overall high stakes situation, she does a lot of meandering along with these fabulous characters, letting the reader feel the time and place as real as if they were there, but with no immediate dire threat, and then she drops a bomb. That problem is solved and she does it again. These books are LONG and they have large spaces where nothing at all urgent is happening, but the woman is an INCREDIBLE writer. If she hadn't already built her name, I doubt that she could sell today. She's one of my favorite writers, and I believe anyone, regardless of the genre they write, can learn from her writing.
[User Picture]
Date:November 18th, 2010 01:06 pm (UTC)

Re: stakes

I read the first book. I agree it was very, very well done. The only reason I never read more was that the first book absorbed like four days of my life and I couldn't afford at the time, when the children were young, to give up any more days. But I was very impressed with her.

One thing I was particularly impressed by was how interesting she makes the sex scenes. I have often skipped a sex scene in a less well written book, trying to jump ahead to the "interesting part where they argue". But hers were good.

I tried to tell her this when I met her once. But the moment I started to compare her sex scenes with those in other romances I had read (the only other place I have read extensive sex scenes) she looked all insulte and announced to me that her books were historicals not romances.

What is funny is that not only do I find her books in the romance section at the bookstore, but her first book, Outlander at least, was launched by a romance publisher who went all out for her. So, it seems a bit ungrateful to make a fuss about it, especially as I was trying to compliment her.

But she was really cool, nonetheless. She dressed with great style, with blue green shawls, and boots and a great sense of flair.
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