steering the craft

Raise those stakes

stakes Jun 22, 2022
 

“High stakes” is one of those phrases that gets flung at writers a lot. 

We know our stories are supposed to have them.  “Life and death” is the go-to metric for the kind of stakes that seem the highest. But how do we lift our stakes to this level if we’re not writing the kind of story in which murder or fatal disease figure anywhere in the plot?

Must we always strive for life and death stakes, even when it feels forced?

And, conversely, are there stakes we can aim for that rise even higher than life and death?

High stakes are how we keep our hero actively striving against obstacles, and how we keep our readers turning pages, too. 

How do the stakes in our storytelling measure up? And how can we turn up the heat, if needed? That's the topic of today’s talk. 

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the “likeability” trap

 

My dear storyteller, I hope no one has said this to you, but if you’ve heard it, please console yourself with the knowledge that you’re not alone. Buckle up and let’s get it over with:

“I just didn’t care about your main character. You need to make her more likeable. More relatable!”

Bah, humbug! I had to say it. Yet how many earnest writers have heard this all-too-common bit of feedback, licked their wounds for a minute, and then bravely proceeded to revise their draft to remove every character defect, cross word, and unpleasant facial expression from the manuscript?

Then, after all traces of humanity have been stripped out, the poor writer who’s fallen into the “likeability trap” throws in a saving-kittens-from-the-floodwaters scene for good measure, and perhaps adds a charming dollop of self-doubt and dorkiness to amp up...

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is your story running out of time?

 

We writers need to keep our readers awake and engaged. And guess what? In fiction as in life, nothing wakes us up like a ringing clock!

Speaking as someone who recently had a birthday, I can tell you that the passage of time is always a powerful tool for focusing our attention.

If there aren’t some high-stakes deadlines lending urgency to your story, maybe it’s time (see what I did?) to add some.

Today we talk about the ways time plays out in a narrative, and the ways time can be an invaluable tool for us writers to raise stakes, add urgency, and put ever more pressure on our hero. 


My weekly livestream is on Wednesdays at 1 PM Pacific. Come live and participate! Or catch the replays here on the blog.

To watch live and ask questions, you can join the Path of the Storyteller Facebook group right here.

Or subscribe to the YouTube channel here. 

 

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the exact middle

The Hobbit is one of my all time faves. (So is Jane Eyre, which I share as evidence that there’s no need to pigeonhole ourselves, as readers or writers.)

Tolkien’s masterpiece opens with a description of Bilbo Baggin’s home, which boasts a green door with a shiny yellow brass knob in the “exact middle.” The difference between “the middle” and “the exact middle” is everything you need to know about Bilbo Baggins. He is the Felix Unger of hobbits, and that one prissy detail foreshadows all the chaos, danger, and discomfort that is to come.

It’s what I call a detail that’s inflected with character. Inflected details are a subject for another post, but today I want to talk a bit more about middles, and not only middles — the middle of the middle. The exact middle.

In writer parlance, the midpoint. 

Today is November 15th, and if you are NaNoWriMoing, you have reached the...

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