Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How Do You Get High Stakes in Your Novel?

I'm so excited to be part of Deana Barnhart's Gearin' Up to Get an Agent Blogfest!

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is related to plotting and stakes. I know it's essential to have something at stake for your main character. That is, something the character wants that motivates their actions. One of the comments I often get from my critique partners is that my character's motivations don't seem strong enough. I know this seems pretty basic, but I'd like to know more about creating "high stakes".

My question is: How do you know if the stakes are high enough? Do all the characters need some kind of stakes, or just the protagonist?

Sorry, this is really two questions (I'm an overachiever), take your pick!

****** In case you missed it, I'm celebrating by giving away 3 "mystery" middle grade novels, one per week for the next three weeks. There's still time to enter to join in the fun! *******

31 comments:

  1. Great question. I think high stakes are different depending on the type of novel your are writing. For high concept books it usually mean some kind of life or death. Something primal concerning the character's basic need. I think when the stakes are high for other characters it adds depth. Neat blogfest.

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  2. It's the difference between choosing to do something and having to do something. If the character could just not bother and get away with it then the stakes aren't high enough.

    This depends on the predicament she's in and can be of any scale, but if it can be put off till later then you need to rework it so there is something forcing it to be dealt with now.

    That's not to say you can't have obstacles getting in the way, but the character should be in a situation where doing nothing is not an option.

    mood
    Moody Writing
    @mooderino

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  3. Oh, and for your second question I think it makes for a stronger story to give other characters a stake, and certainly the antagonist should be as driven as the MC.

    mood
    (Visit my blogorama question on my blog!)

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  4. I would agree with Laura. It depends on the book. I would also agree with Mood above about how the has to something now even with the obsticles put in front of them. It can't be something they can do later. It needs to be urgent and life changing.

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  5. I try to think about consequences when I'm figuring out stakes: If my character doesn't achieve her goal, what will happen? Whatever the result is, it has to be the worst thing imaginable for the character. That might be death, or the loss of a loved one, or total humiliation. Not every book will have life/death stakes, but the consequences of failure have to be huge in the character's eyes.

    And yes, I think giving other characters stakes gives you even more to work with.

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  6. This is a great question. I was wondering the same thing. I have just created a story where two of my main characters are at high risk.

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  7. I like the Anna K.'s answer - what will happen if your character doesn't achieve their goal.

    And yes, secondary characters need arcs and stakes too - at least the one's who make more than fleeting appearances - but really if you think about even the fleeting ones, chances are they have a hand in the game.

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  8. Everyone in a story should really want something and it's our job as writers to put up obstacles that the characters must overcome to get what they're after. The obstacles should get more and more difficult as the story moves along. This is the best explanation I've received for keeping the stakes high.

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  9. I love this question - and the answers - becasue I'm struggling with the same thing right now. So I don't have answers, I'm just going to keep reading what everyone else says ^_^

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  10. I think it the plot shouldn't be measured by how high the stakes are, but instead, it should be measured by the stakes as necessary obstacles. If your obstacles are needed to further the plot (a la Percy Jackson or Harry Potter) then go for it.

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  11. I think stakes always need to be high and very fundamental: survival, love, something everyone can relate to. I also think supporting characters need those same high stakes, so it isn't only the MC who drives the story.

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  12. Hi, Andrea,

    For me the stakes are high enough if the alternatives and consequences make me feel emotions down to my soul. And I think the antagonist as well as the protagonist need stakes in order for the plot to have true conflict.

    How intense the stakes need to be would depend upon the genre, I think. If I'm writing a nostalgic or quirky PB the stakes are still there, but they're appropriate for the age of my readers. In my historical YA, The Underground Gift, I needed the tension and stakes to match my characters' problems: two teens who share a secret on the eve of the Civil War and the sadistic slave catcher who would destroy them both.

    Wishing you a great writing day!

    Michelle

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  14. I've just learned something ladies. In my Wip my main character is driven by loss and love to find her siblings. My antagonist is mostly WW2. Now I need to add stakes to my other characters to make the story richer. Thanks!

    I'm now following you.

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  15. There are always stakes but I think their importance depends on your genre. If you write thrillers, those stakes are life-or-death; romance: get-the-love, chick lit: juggle-it-all, etc. Once you know your genre, you can tell if you're on the right track. Like another poster said, the stakes drive your character, not the other way around.

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  16. I agree with Melodie. I think the conflict will depend on your genre. If the conflict gets in the way of your characters, it's too much. Having a good balance between both will prevent overkill. Not everything is a live or die situation. Some of the best books I've ever read deal with day to day issues that can destroy a person bit by bit (abuse, eating disorders, racism, etc.). The stakes don't always have to be high to be a great story.

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  17. I like moderate stakes and then rise into the dire stakes.

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  18. Wow, I'm learning a lot from this discussion. I like the points about making the stakes match the genre or the character's needs within that particular story world.

    There have also been some great suggestions about keeping a balance -- the stakes have to be appropriate for the situation, not overwhelming so that they get in the way of the story. Lots to think about.

    I've been thinking that the stakes do change as the story moves along and that can really increase the tension.

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  19. I like to raise the stakes by making my characters make choices between two impossible choices. Make them confront something they don't want to. Like chose between saving one thing they love over something else they love. It ups the stakes every time!

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  20. I don't think the stakes have to be high (like life or death) if the story doesn't call for it. But there has to be something they want or think they want that's difficult to achieve. It's all about character for me. Make me care about them, and I'll care about what they want.

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  21. Theresa has a great point--"It's all about the character for me. Make me care about them, and I'll care about what they want." Couldn't agree more! If I feel a connection with the MC, their main goal could be something as trivial as learning how to plant a tree, and I'll be right there with them, rooting them on. :P

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  22. I didn't read everyone else's comments, so perhaps someone said it better, but here's my thoughts: yes, everyone needs high stakes. High stakes, however, are not always life or death. Sometimes they are wanting to go to prom. Or needing to finish off the cheesecake. High stakes happen in real life all the time. It's fun to play a game where you watch people around you and figure out their stakes at the moment and then what would make the stakes higher. For example, my daughter was upset that the neighbor girl didn't say goodbye to her before leaving tonight. My daughter begged for us to let her go over even though it was too late. To her, the stakes were pretty high. To make them higher, maybe the neighbor girl took something of my daughter's and she wants it back. And even higher, maybe the neighbor girl is leaving town for a month. Maybe I'm just a nerd, but that's what i do with my spare thinking time. :)

    Great to find your blog. I entered your contest and followed you! I'm laurabwriter.blogspot.com

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  23. I think the stakes have to be matched to the character. What's the worst thing, in her own opinion, that could happen to her? That should be the threatened outcome if she doesn't achieve her goal or solve her conflict.

    But the stakes have to strike readers, not just the MC, as important enough. If not, then they're probably having issues with what they perceive as weak characters and plot. We have to be willing to put our MC in the toughest possible spot, so that "life" is in peril as appropriate for that genre, which will really challenge our plotting chops to get her out of it.

    I do think stakes are important for other characters, too, just as motivation is. We're motivated because if we do/don't do X, then Y will/won't happen. Y is the stakes.

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  24. Argh, how high stakes are. I've had that feedback too, that the stakes aren't high enough. It may be a bit subjective, but I think it's also something I'm working on! Good post, good reminder.

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  25. I'm reading a book right now and I love the tone of it, the setting and romance but there is no urgency in the story.

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  26. Good discussion. Thank you for bringing this up. I've learned by reading through the discussion too.

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  27. I think your stakes have to be strong enough to carry the reader through the whole novel. That can be different things for different stories of course. Is your protags issue that strong. Would it carry him/her through. THat is what keeps the reader turning the pages.

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  28. I think the stakes have to be the motivating factor driving your story and I think the stakes of all the major characters should relate in either how they work together or work against each other. This conflict is what keeps the reader turning pages.

    (I found you through the Blogfest. I'm a new follower.)

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  29. Thanks for asking a great question and for being late to the party, I get to read all these great answers. Think I am going to learn alot from this blogfest!

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  30. Same here, this is a hard one. I am used to writing picture book problems and have recently gone back to chapter book/MG so I have to check myself that the problem is serious enough. Great answers everyone!

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  31. So many great comments. I don't have anything to add but a good question!

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