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.