We are talking about raising the stakes in our novels this week.  Whenever I think about this topic, I'm reminded of the Storytellers' writing conference I attended a few years back, where Donald Maas challenged us to dig deep to find emotional and embarrassing truths about ourselves and get them on the page.  Part of me was terrorized by the idea of mining experiences that I'd locked away for good reason, and I think I spent much of the day in abject horror.  But there were several things he said that stuck with me and that pop into my head when I'm plotting or revising a manuscript.

Emotional connections are a natural way to increase the stakes:  As Katherine pointed out yesterday, the stakes are immediately raised when the people involved have some sort of personal and emotional connection to the character.  An antagonist who swoops onto the scene from nowhere, with no connection to the main character beyond the machinations of the plot (i.e. he wants something different than the main character) is less compelling than the anatagonist that has a deep, personal connection to the main character.  It's easy for a character to fight against someone they have no feelings for, but what if that person is a sibling, a parent, a lover or a close friend?  These multiple layers of conflict immediately raise the stakes for the character.  For example, a woman might be madly in love with a man who is married to someone else.  There is already lots of conflict in that situation.  But what if the man is married to her sister?  What if the man was her high school sweetheart who left her for her sister years earlier?  Personal and emotional connections immediately raise the stakes.  Everyone remembers Darth Vader telling Luke "I am your father," for a reason.

Make your characters confront their worst fear:  What is the worst thing that could happen to this particular character?  Make it happen!  Tension in a novel comes from the threat of failure and the potential consequences of that failure, but readers often feel let down if the threat never materializes.  If your character is threatened with something, make it happen.  Better yet, make it worse than the character feared. It's not enough to threaten obstacles to the character's main goal, we have to allow those obstacles to materialize, and challenge the character until they are past their breaking points.  Talk about raising stakes!

The unintended consequence: One of my favorite ways of raising stakes is to give the character what they think they want, but then make the outcome far different from what the character imagined.  The ancient proverb "be careful what you wish for" is always in the back of my  mind when plotting and revising books.  A character may believe that dating a particular boy will make her happy, but what if the boy turns out to be controlling, mean or abusive? What if the killer turns out to be someone much closer to the character than she ever imagined, and finding him will shatter her entire family?  What if getting into that great university means leaving behind the love of his life?

Let your characters fail: a character who never fails is not only one dimensional, but likely boring and insufferable.  Even James Bond gets captured by the bad guy at some point. Rising action is heightened by a series of set-backs, and tension is created by the knowledge that the character can and still could fail.  The tension in that climactic scene is built by the character's past failures.  One trick used often by screenwriters it to force your character to do something in the climactic scene that he already failed at earlier in the book.  Remember the lift in Dirty Dancing?  Baby could never get it right, and when we see her setting up for it in the final scene, we are hoping she lands it.  And when she does, we share her joy. Do you think we would feel the same way if she had landed that jump in the prior scenes?  No way.


Ooh, I especially like "the unintended consequence." I'm going to look at how I could incorporate that into my WIP!

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