Saturday, April 21, 2012

A to Z Challenge: S is for Stakes




S is for Stakes:  to risk something, as upon the result of a game or occurrence or outcome of any uncertain event or venture. (Dictionary.com)

When writing a story, plot is of utmost importance, but the plot means nothing if there isn’t something of high value at stake for the main character.  My favorite writing guru, literary agent Donald Maass, asks in his book on craft, The Fire in Fiction, “If your protagonist is not successful, so what?” meaning, why should anyone care what happens to him?  You see, life and death stakes are meaningless unless they are tied to an underlying human worth.  The character’s life must have meaning, purpose, and value.  Simply put, the reader needs to care.  In building his value, you’re building the stakes.  But how do you do that?

Give your protagonist high principles and an ethical code of personal conduct.  This will make him more compelling.  Then test those principles to the extreme.  Make him struggle to remain loyal to his personal belief system.  And this struggle should not just matter to him, but to others, as well, because stakes work on two levels, public and private, and those stakes should be high on both. 

Tune into what society might lose if your protagonist fails.  To do this, Maass suggests beginning with a grain of truth that lends itself to high plausibility.  Deepen that by going inside the character’s mind, attend his ideas of right and wrong.  Grant him the American Dream, build that dream into an empire, then put it all at risk.  What would devastate him to lose?  What disaster would leave him feeling insecure, lost and alone, shaken and fearful?  Build your protagonist’s story around that disaster.

His stakes will feel stronger if he is sympathetic in some way.  So let your reader know the main character as intimately as possible, as much as you do.  And if the protagonist cares passionately for his own life, the reader will feel invested, too.  

Maass writes that every protagonist needs:  “an aching regret, a tortuous need, a visible dream, an inescapable ambition, a passionate longing, an exhaustive lust, an inner lack, an unavoidable obligation, a fatal weakness, an iron instinct, a noble ideal, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…that in the end, propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.

So as writers, we must escalate those stakes, “…make our characters suffer, kill his closest ally, take away his greatest physical asset, undermined his faith, shorten the timeline he has to solve his problem.” 

How high are your protagonist’s stakes, and what forces can you put into motion that will raise them even higher?   

13 comments:

icedgurl said...

trekking your blog!!!

cheers!
..TREK..

Natalie Aguirre said...

Awesome post and so true. We do have to have high stakes and we have to make the reader care about our character. Thanks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

"Make him struggle to remain loyal to his personal belief system." - that was my first book's character in a nutshell!

Donna K. Weaver said...

Yep. I've learned a lot about this whole, you've got to identify the character with the most at stake, the most to win or lose. Good S word.

Cassie Mae said...

I have the toughest time with stakes cuz to me, everything is a big deal, lol.

Mary Aalgaard, Play off the Page said...

Another tool is to have something happen that challenges a "truth" or belief system that the protagonist has invested in. The internal struggle comes outward in interesting ways.

Play off the Page

Chuck said...

Then again it could also be about the implement used to kill vampires...right???

Lisa Regan said...

Well you know the stakes for us crime novelists are usually life and death but I personally never relate to a character unless there is something more, some emotional component. Once again, I think you should make these posts into an e-book on writing self-help!!!

Lynda R Young said...

I think that's part of what I enjoy most about writing--giving my characters a hard time and raising those stakes so they don't know which way to turn, muwhahahaha.

Nicky Wells said...

Oooh, the stakes! They are high. What's at stake for Sophie? Only her lifetime's happiness, and that of several other people. And that's the tough one for her, messing with other people's lives. What should she choose? Her own desires? What morality dictates? What people think she ought to do? Great post, Nancy, as always, really throught provoking! Thanks!

DeniseCovey_L_Aussie said...

Great words from Mass. One of my how-to gurus. Stakes are never high enough. Make 'em suffer some more. Great advice.

Denise

Old Kitty said...

I like this advice! The higher the stakes the more endearing your protag becomes! I've just watched "Inception" and the more the stakes got higher as the film went on the more I cheered for Leo di Cap! Take care
x

Julie Musil said...

Oooh, I haven't read Mass' book, but I like what I see! I learned kind of the same thing from James Scott Bell's book--why can't your mc just walk away? Now I'm off to see about getting another craft book :)