Raising the Stakes

The trickiest part of writing a novel, IMHO, is structuring the story arc over such a long span.  Although there are exceptions, a lot of novels cover a course of months or years (centuries, if you’re Edward Rutherford), for the characters.  Readers will take days, weeks, or months (depending on their reading pace and how dense the material of your book is) to finish it.  And of course, you, as the writer, will spend months, if not a few years, writing and polishing it.  It can be hard to keep perspective from within all those thousands of words and hundreds of hours of work!  It isn’t always easy to tell, in the process, if you’re going on too much with one section and rushing through another.  Pacing isn’t something you can always judge on the first draft, or even the second.

But pacing is the least of a writer’s worries with structure – pacing is easy to fix.  What’s hard to fix is the scenes that don’t have a clear direction – especially when you have a lot of them – and the storylines that don’t fit together the way you want, and the plot holes that will take massive amounts of lead-up that you didn’t put in because you didn’t realize you’d need it.  My first finished novel, The Kind That Hurts the Most, which will hopefully never see the light of day, suffered from a hideous lack of plot structure and far too many directionless scenes in the middle.  To this day, I can’t see any way to fix it, short of throwing in some werewolves or zombies or possibly Godzilla, and I’d have to pay royalties for him.  Anyway, one of the tools I’ve picked up since that novel, which would really have saved it as I was drafting it, is raising the stakes.

If you’re meandering, unfocused, or directionless with your plot, one of the surest cures is to increase the pressure on your characters.  That doesn’t always mean changing the events of the storyline, either – you can make the events mean more to the characters, affect them more profoundly, as long as you have a basis established for why, for this person, is this event momentous?

There’s such a wide range of ways to approach the idea of “raising the stakes”, too.  In a comedy/adventure style of story, you can heap things on until it’s ridiculous (Indiana Jones’ “Snakes…why did it have to be SNAKES?” moment comes to mind).  In a literary novel, one character’s mindset can shift just a little too late, and the resulting regret can drive them to overcompensate, lash out, or strive to change.  In a mystery, the killer can come after the sleuth.  Loved ones can be threatened, or can threaten to withdraw or leave.  Loyalties can split at a crucial time.  Fortunes can be squandered, jobs can be lost, antagonists can attack in unforseen ways, storms can strike, wars can be declared.  There are a zillion options for making life hard in your story world.

One thing you can do is think about bad timing in your own life.  Everyone has had those times when bad news seems to come in like a tide – wave upon wave of bad news, pounding in on you.  What did you really need right then that fell through or went wrong, or what was the last straw?  And when you got to the last straw, no matter how you reacted, what would your characters have done, in the same position?  How would they have solved the problem, or made it worse?

See, you’re getting a free exercise here, even though it’s not Friday.  And writing therapy, sort of.

Anyway, as crazy as this sounds, I’m going to recommend Adam Sandler movies as prime examples of raising the stakes.  They’re formulaic in many ways, and obviously silly, but re-watching Happy Gilmore a couple weeks ago, I thought, “Damn!  If I ever teach a creative writing class in my lifetime, I’m using this to show my students how to raise the stakes.”  Several of Sandler’s movies would work as examples (formulaic, as I said) but Happy Gilmore has an element that underlines that the stakes are being raised – the sports commentators, who throw in lines like, “And things just keep getting worse for Happy Gilmore!  If he doesn’t calm down, he’s going to lose this round!” when the audience knows, of course, that he must win this round to save his grandmother’s house from repossession.  So thank you, Adam Sandler, for helping me with this blog entry.

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4 thoughts on “Raising the Stakes

  1. Hey, Sara, this one’s gonna help me–always like reading your posts, but I’m starting to see the vague shape of ideas after reading this one. My novel spans over 25 years, and the raison d’etre of some of the chapters is a little murky; I think they’re serving the overall plot but am not quite sure… another one of your posts, about sub-plots, is going to help me here too. Yeah, some of the events I have written about are fairly tame, and don’t put my characters under a lot of pressure… so I just have snapshots of the characters at different points through the years, and they’re just kind of existing…

  2. Glad to be of some help to you! Sounds like some of the issues that happened to me with The Kind That Hurts the Most – I just didn’t push hard enough; plus, I got away from my original concept for the structure, which was a series of snapshots, like you’re talking about. I got too involved in bridging the gaps between turning points, and I think that was a mistake. It’s hard to keep perspective sometimes, like I said in this post! Stick with it and be ruthless, and you’ll get it where you need it to be. 🙂

  3. Hey, THE KIND THAT HURTS THE MOST can be saved! One day, you’ll look back at it and go, “Oh, yeah!” Do you have a print-out? Is a GOOD BOOK, basically! I want to see it printed in the light of day!

    • Hah! We’ll see…. So far, I think a zombie apocolypse is the best thing that could possibly happen to Killian. He’d probably still mope and overthink things…up until the zombies caught up with him because he was busy overanalyzing his feelings. After he gets turned into a zombie, he’ll definitely be a more likeable character. At least then, he’ll DO SOMETHING, even if it’s mindlessly eating other people’s brains. Hm. Yes, somehow it would be poetically ironic to make him totally mindless. Now, there’s an idea! 😉

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