Raising Stakes

Katherine Longshore 4 Tuesday, May 06, 2014
I think I may have mentioned here before that I'm more of a pantser than a plotter.  More often than not (five books out of six, so far), I've had to wrestle a zero draft up to first draft status by completely rearranging all the scenes, adding transitions and reactions so they work in some kind of structure.

This is not necessarily a process I recommend.

It is, however, a process with which I'm coming to terms.  And one of the reasons I don't sack myself completely is because the process is a direct result of what I love most about writing and reading.


On a writing retreat last weekend, I was told (I think more than once) that I write character-driven novels.  Probably because I kept bemoaning the fact that I was struggling to come up with a plot for my next book.  (Because it always looks easier from the other side, doesn't it?  I'm sure you plot-driven people think that something about my writing process looks easy, though I can't imagine what. I just keep thinking that if I knew where the book was going, I might be able to write it that way the first time and skip that unpleasant zero draft.)

This is a roundabout way of getting to my point, but don't worry, I'm getting there (kind of like how I get to a plot eventually).

Johann Heinrich Füssli
Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis
When we talk about raising the stakes and making things worse for our characters, our minds often turn immediately toward the events of the novel.  Like The Odyssey, where Odysseus meets monsters and betrayal and his men are turned into pigs and then six of his men were killed by Scylla and then they disobeyed him and the ship was wrecked by Charybdis and everybody died.

But it doesn't end there.

It gets worse.

As writers, we learn to throw things at our poor protagonists that make their lives miserable.  No one wants to read about a bunch of happy people who always get along.  We want to read about people who face terror and loneliness and death.  Preferably all three at once.  Or one after the other and then all three at once.

One thing I've learned through my process, and through searching out ways after the initial draft is written to make things worse is that part of raising the stakes is entirely character-centric.  Raising the stakes is an essential part of deepening and enriching the inner journey.

A man who has to save a kid from dying is in a tough position.

A man who has to save his own son from dying is in an even tougher position--because of the emotional connection.

What about these?

A man who has somehow betrayed his son and then has to save him from dying.

A man who abandoned his son, discovered him again, regained his trust and then lost it, who has to save his son from dying.

Each one of these raises the stakes.  Yes, some of that is part of the external journey (whatever put the son at death's door, whatever caused the breach between father and son in the first place).  But much of it is internal.  A huge part of it is emotional.

So when you're thinking about your own novel, and about raising the stakes, don't just think about tornadoes and knife-throwers and long, twisting staircases down which she can be pushed.  Think about what makes things worse for her emotionally.

In real life, most of us don't want to hurt people, but raising the stakes in your novel is fun.  What more can I throw at this guy?  Just remember that the emotional impact comes from your character--how well developed she is, how invested she is (and how invested we are in her) and how it affects her inner arc.

Look closely at how she feels about events--and then make it worse by making her feel the emotional impact even more deeply.

Many thanks to Donald Maass, Lorin Oberwerger and the Free Expressions workshops for teaching me so much about raising the stakes and for agreeing to let me use their fun graphics.  Visit the website to find out more about Free Expressions, their workshops (and Raising the Stakes coffee mugs).


GREAT advice, Katy, and something I'm going to work on in this draft!

Thanks, Beth! I was actually thinking of our conversation about Ben's aunt while I was writing this...

Yes, yes, yes. It's the emotional context of the events that raises the stakes most significantly. Thanks for this!

Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers