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Plot or Plod Part 4: Raise Those Stakes!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

So your characters are in place. You’ve made connections between character development and plot. You know where your story is going.

Great. Now raise the stakes.

Huh? What does that mean?

“Raising the stakes” for our characters is something we writers see and hear over and over and over in writing books, in online classes, and at conferences. But what does it actually mean when it comes to writing?

Have you ever had one of those days (or weeks or months or years)? One of those days where it feels like everything has gone wrong and there’s no way your day could possibly get worse? The car didn’t start this morning. It took the tow truck two hours to come. Your boss yelled at you when you got to work for being late (even though you called). The daycare center called—your kid just threw up on their new carpet and you have to go get them right now. But the rental car company hasn’t come to pick you up yet. Your husband calls from his business trip on the other side of the country to say his boss has asked him to stay two more days because the deal isn’t going as planned. Older kid’s school calls—kid got into a fight and is being suspended. Mom calls from two hundred miles away: she’s taking your dad to the hospital because they think he might be having a heart attack. The auto shop calls to give you an estimate to fix your car and it’s over $2,000—which is more than you have in your checking account at the moment. And it’s not even lunch time yet!

Each one of these CONFLICTS increases the stakes for the character. (And no, you would not want to throw this level of conflict at your character all in one day. This is what people read fiction to get away from.) The reason they increase the stakes is not inherent in and of the conflicts themselves, but because each conflict builds upon the one that came before it—getting the call from your mother that your dad may be having a heart attack and they’re two hundred miles away is bad. But with no car, dealing with issues with both kids, a husband who’s out of town, and facing a bill you’re not going to be able to pay, the situation with the parents is twenty times worse than it would be if that were the only thing going wrong.

Remember Murphy’s Law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong.

Donald Maass, in the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook explains “the essence” of raising the stakes as “making things worse, showing us that there is more to lose, promising even bigger disasters that will happen if the hero doesn’t make matters come out okay.” This can be on a global scale (think of all of the villains bent on world destruction that James Bond defeated) or it can be on an individual scale (will Maria stay at the abbey or will she return and declare her love for Captain von Trapp?).

In Stein on Writing, Sol Stein writes that “the essence of plotting [is] putting the protagonist’s desire and the antagonist’s desire into sharp conflict. . . . One way to plan is to think of what would most thwart your protagonist’s want then give the power to thwart that want to the antagonist.”

What is the main conflict for each of your main characters? How can you make the problem worse? For a great example of this, follow Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Mount Doom. Every time something happens to him, we think that nothing else worse could happen, but it always does.

Is there another character (whether good or bad) in your story that has the ability to keep your main character from achieving his or her goal? If the character must be somewhere at a certain time to stave off worldwide disaster, how many things can you think of to stop the character from getting there on time?

A great example of a movie (miniseries, really) that raises the stakes and develops conflicts like nothing else I’ve ever seen is The 10th Kingdom. The simple premise is that two modern New Yorkers (played by John Larroquette and Kimberly Williams-Paisley) find themselves transported into the land of the Nine Kingdoms—fairy-tale land! They must find the magic mirror that transported them to this fantasy world to get back to New York. When the story finally ends seven hours later, you feel like you’ve run a marathon—because these poor characters have been put through the ringer.

Do you back off of conflicts in your story? Do you pull punches? Do you try to make things easier for your characters? Do you resolve arguments off stage?


What’s the worst thing that happens to your character in your current work in progress? Your assignment is to think of a way to make it even more horrible. Raise those stakes!

Have you ever considered any situation in which your character might not reach his or her goal? Put them in that situation and see what happens. Raise those stakes!

And just think about this. When you’re watching a movie, and one of the characters says something along the lines of, “Things can’t get any worse.” What is our immediate reaction? “Yeah, right. Oh, look, things just got worse.” The stakes were just raised.

So go out there and raise the stakes—make things worse—for your characters and see if that doesn’t add a totally new spin to your plot.

  1. Thursday, October 25, 2007 9:00 am

    I worry that in trying to “raise the stakes”, I’m crossing the line from dramatic into melodramatic. At what point are the stakes so high that the story loses credibility?


  2. Thursday, October 25, 2007 11:06 am

    I think stories lose credibility when the conflicts start moving out of the realm of what’s realistic. For example—the “too stupid to live” heroine in the movies. She’s the one who opens the door when everyone in the audience is screaming for her not to. She’s the one who runs UPstairs instead of down. She’s the one who runs into a room and locks the door, then backs across the room from it, just staring at the rattling knob instead of either trying to find another way out or something to defend herself with.

    Conflict must have a logical base. It must answer the “why would that happen?” question along with the “why would he do that?” question.

    Is it a realistic situation? Does it develop naturally out of what’s already happened to the character? Does how the character react to the conflict come out of what has already been revealed about the character’s morals, values, intellect, spirituality, etc.? And, most importantly, does the conflict move the story forward toward the ultimate climax/goal? If a conflict is just there for the sake of conflict, that’s when it becomes melodramatic.

    For example: the character is a secretary. She thinks her boss is involved in something sinister. She sneaks into his office to go through his files and gets caught. She tells him she was just looking for something for a project he asked her to do, and he lets her off the hook. Next time he steps out of her office, she starts snooping. Gets caught again. This time, boss is suspicious. He leaves the office, she snoops. She gets caught. He yells at her. He leaves the office, she snoops. He orders her out of his office. If this cycle continues, this is where it gets melodramatic. If she doesn’t learn from the consequences after the first couple of times she gets caught, the reader isn’t going to believe in the character any more—the character begins to look stupid and the conflict becomes forced and unrealistic. Plus, for conflict to have any meaning, the character has to experience some successes/progress along the way to make it believable that they’d continue meeting the conflict head-on every time.


  3. Thursday, October 25, 2007 11:07 am

    I love throwing darts at my characters. Guess I have a little mean streak 😉


  4. Thursday, October 25, 2007 4:14 pm

    Georgiana is totally FEARLESS when it comes to putting her characters through the wringer. I wanna be like her when I grow up!

    I do want to pull my punches, coddle my characters, and resolve conflict too early.

    If I didn’t have such great crit partners who ding me mercilessly for letting all the tension out of a scene like a busted bagpipes (:D almost said balloon, but that would be cliche and I’m trying to avoid that) I’d have limp as stewed spinich plot.

    Thanks, girls!


  5. Thursday, October 25, 2007 6:26 pm

    Okay, maybe this is just restating Patricia W’s question–

    My main plot comes from a folktale, and I’ve already added to what’s there, but I’m leary of adding more– maybe it’s just a covert desire to save my characters, but I keep having two styles opposite each other in my mind:

    Robin McKinnley vs. Anne McCaffery. Both are Fantasy, but in Robin’s stuff I keep being surprised at finding friends where I didn’t expect to.

    e.g. Beauty’s sisters being sweet and close-knit instead of wicked– becomes a plot-point later on– vs. Anne’s running everyone into the ground until they are *totally* isolated.

    Maybe it’s revealing my own insecurities, but I like the interdependence model better than the humanistic “I’m-all-I’ve-got” model.

    (Is this a question yet?)

    Will you believe I’m making it as hard as I need to if my protag has an un-dashed hope, positive memory or human (or divine?) encouragement to lean on?

    Does there have to be a black-night moment where s/he doubts *everything*?

    According to this model it seems like your goal is to ID everything important and then take them out one by one…


  6. Thursday, October 25, 2007 6:32 pm

    Not every story lends itself to taking everything away from the characters. For example, in my contemporary romance, the heroine, whose event planning business means the entire world to her, doesn’t have to actually face losing her business—but she does have to face the idea of walking out on a contract and possibly losing money/damaging her company’s reputation when she discovers her client is her ex-fiance. What does nearly get taken away from her is the hero because of her own anger/mistrust of his motives.

    As a writer, you have to be willing to take everything away from your characters. But only do it if it serves the story and the character.


  7. Thursday, October 25, 2007 10:48 pm

    I get it. Thanks Kaye!

    Character not learning from past conflict/consequences. Events out of the realm of possibility. Stuff that elicits the wrong reader reactions (“too-stupid-to-live”, laughter when author was trying for tears, etc.) These equal melodrama.


  8. Friday, October 26, 2007 12:44 pm

    All Nick wants to do is marry Ti. But she’s making him deal with some stuff first and he doesn’t want to do it. So he’s faced with the possibility of losing her if he doesn’t deal with it, but he’s afraid he’ll lose himself if he DOES deal with it. I’m also playing with the idea of bringing in another guy who wants to court her, to give him a little more motivation to actually DO something.

    And Sergei’s father is about to die, within the next 4 scenes or so I think. Dear old Dad’s lawyer has entered the picture and he’s going to be fighting tooth and nail to get Sergei out of the business so he can take over it. And I think he might be having an affair with Sergei’s mother…



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