Monday, October 4, 2010

Raising the Stakes on Your Character

I was talking to my critique 'group' this weekend about stakes. Not the juicy kind you eat, but the type of stakes that your character faces.

I've been re-reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass, and if you haven't read this book...then run right out and get NOW!

For those of you who aren't familiar with this man, he is a literary agent in New York who's sold many bestsellers to publishing houses. His book takes your writing to the next all aspects.

One of the things he talks about is stakes -- both public and private for your character. In chapter three of his book, Maass asks you, the author...

"Are the stakes in your current manuscript as high as they possibly can be? Can you define the stakes? Can you point to the exact pages in which the stakes escalate, locking your protagonist into his course of action with less hope of success than before?"

If your answer is no...then you may have a problem. With your plot, your characters, your concept.  You see Maass writes to authors of all genres, not just the suspense or the mystery writer, and low stakes are a common problem with beginning writers.

Ask yourself these two questions: What is my character's goal?  What happens if they don't achieve this?

So...*coughs nervously* let's put this into practice, shall we? Lets take a storyline from my WIP, Bayou Blue.

What does my character want? 
She wants to prove her brother was falsely accused of a terrorist act.
What happens if she doesn't achieve this goal? 
Then a plot to ignite a natural gas tanker will incinerate Boston harbor. private stakes are high, her brother is charged with terrorism and all that entails. And public stakes are high...lots of death and destruction.  Woo Hoo! Now we're cooking with gas!  No pun intended.

I'm off to a good start and with some more tension, character layering, and TONS of hard work...I'll have a story worth telling...

But the stakes also don't have to be as far reaching as mine are. Maass gives an example of public/private on a small scale in his book when he explains how Thomas Harris turned the hunt for a single man into a harrowing psychological ride. I'm talking about the breakout hit, The Silence of the Lambs.

The book, not the movie, is a great example of raising the stakes by deepening the characters. Look at his players...Buffalo Bill a crazed serial killer who skins his victims, Dr. Lecter, a brilliant but psychotic man who alone has insight enough to stop the killer, and Agent Starling, a young woman with a driving need to understand and stop what is happening. 

Harris raises the stakes in his novel, not through formulaic plot points, but by pushing his characters to the edge and beyond.

Agent Starling is so intent on stopping the murder of not just any woman, a Senator's daughter, that she is willing to give up pieces of herself, her most dark and painful memories, to the one man who can help her stop the carnage.

Whew...Talk about high stakes!  And there is no galactic calamity or worldwide plague to deal with here.  One man, one woman and the chase to stop a murder.  But the characters are so vivid, so deeply written, that your emotional investment goes through the roof.

So now I challenge you to take a look at your characters and plot. What are your stakes both public and private...are they compelling or ho hum?

Until next time...Go Write!