Sep 18, 2012
How To Raise The Stakes In Your Novel
In an earlier post, I mentioned that to improve a scene or entire novel, one question to ask is, Can I raise the stakes?
Maybe the answer is Yes.
The principle is simple--any activity that differentiates a living being from a rock raises the stakes.
Yes, yes, rocks don't have midlife crisis about whether their spouse is leaving them or whether their Art is Truly Great, but that's not what I'm talking about. High stakes have to touch a basic need of living things.
Put yourself in the shoes of your main character and imagine one of these needs is at risk:
1. Your life.
The most obvious thing to put at risk is the character's life. Escape a predator, a hired killer, a band of orcs. Don't crash the plane, survive on the island, be the winner in the televised fight to the death against other human contestants.
2. The life of someone you love.
Humans are social so there may be goals even more important than our own lives. The lives of our loved ones obviously top that list.
3. The life of an innocent.
It's sad but we don't react to saving strangers with the same urgency as saving our own kin and comrades. Doctors and firefighters and police and soldiers fight to save strangers all the time--but in stories, the person they are trying to save is usually closer. Hence the cliche, "This time it's personal."
However, the battle to save a stranger can be just as poignant if the stranger is an obvious innocent: a child, an animal, a young person or someone who is a symbol for a larger ideal. A princess or a president or a pope or ambassador represents not just themselves but a whole nation or group.
4. The life of a threat.
There's an inverse version of the above three motives, and that is the need to kill someone who is an explicit or implicit threat. The tyrant or serial killer or evil alien general or monster has to be stopped or destroyed or assassinated before... the implication must always be before he gets you or someone you love or someone innocent first.
5. Your love.
The other single most important thing every living thing must do besides survive is reproduce. That's why winning the love of someone is so important. If you have story about a really, really dry and esoteric topic, you can always raise the stakes by adding a romance. This is true whether your intended readership is male or female. If you don't want your book to be all about the romance, that's fine, but include winning, losing, proving or keeping a love as a goal to keep the stakes high.
All other goals, such as money, power, prestige, respect, honor, even truth or freedom are valuable because without them, one of the five items above are put at risk. This is not just true in stories. It's true in real life.
I've included the funny poster comparing Twilight and Hunger Games. Of course, even if it were true, finding love is just as high a stake, sometimes higher, as your life, so there's nothing wrong with a story that is "only" a romance.
But notice that in the case of Twilight, the poster is not even correct. Without the love triangle, Twilight is about a woman who must decide whether to be immortal herself or to have a child. That's why the series is a quartet rather than a trilogy. It doesn't end with her marriage, as a pure romance would. It's as much about Risk #1 and Risk #2 as about Risk # 5.