Tuesday, August 9, 2011

How High Are Your Stakes?

Every story needs stakes, the higher the better.

It took me a while to understand this concept. A long time ago, when an agent called to talk with me about one of my manuscripts, she said my stakes were about a 4.7, and I needed to ratchet them up to an 11. I realized I was striving to give my characters a breezy, conflict-free life filled with rainbows and lollipops, which is understandable, except it makes for a less-than-compelling story.

When a story has high stakes, the characters have to make difficult choices. Each option has unbearable consequences, but with darn good reasons for being that way. Characters naturally want to go with the easy alternative, but they aren't allowed to, because there aren't any easy alternatives.  

This provides built-in tension, and the reader stays around because he/she wants to know which impossible choice the character will ultimately make. If it's a choice the reader knows the character doesn't WANT to make, but HAS to, there is also built-in sympathy for the character.

I have an example of this from a TV show I watch, called Flashpoint, which is about a SWAT team in Canada (known as the "Strategic Response Unit", or SRU). I love the characters, and the way they joke about being important enough to wear the "cool pants", as well as their heroism and bravery in a variety of emotionally tough situations.

In one episode, the SRU team is desperately trying to stop a madman who is intent on blowing up the city, potentially harming hundreds of people. As one of the team members approaches the building where the suspect is hiding, he steps on a landmine.

It's easy to understand the awfulness of this scenario, even without seeing the character's response when he hears the click under his boot. There are definitely some high stakes here. If he lifts his foot, he blows up. Even though he is in tiptop physical shape, there's a certain limit to how long he can stay motionless in that one position.

After watching this show for many weeks, I've gotten used to this team getting themselves, and others, out of impossible situations. They are used to it, too, and they respond as they always do, not even worried about the outcome. One of the other team members is best friends with this guy, and the episode opened with them just back from a vacation together, laughing as they showed pics of their antics to the rest of the team.

The best friend races around trying to find ways to fix this horrible situation, and I'm on the edge of my seat fervently hoping it can work out. I tell myself the SRU team has proven time and time again they can rescue people from dire situations. I don't even want to consider the possibility that it won't work out. It has to work out, because I want everything to be okay for these people I care about.

However, it soon becomes clear that the available solutions aren't working. It's not possible to fix this, and everyone but the best friend acknowledges it--including the man standing on the land mine. He doesn't want to admit it, but he knows. And he's aware he has a decision to make, choosing between two horrifying possibilities.

He can lift his foot and be killed instantly.

Or he can stay put and let his best friend continue the risky maneuver of moving something on top of the land mine, in the remote hope that it will work and not blow up both of them.

Those are some Level 11 high stakes. The kind that have you wishing there was a Door #3 to choose instead.

However, high stakes don't always have to literally involve "life or death". In my characters' lives, "life or death" is a little different, with "life" being the new direction they take, and "death" being the end of the old life they hold on to so tightly, before they encountered the person they love and everything changed so drastically.

Still, high stakes come with an emotional cost, no matter which choice is made. That is what keeps us glued to the book, maniacally turning the pages, worried about the land mines threatening to detonate the characters' hearts. We have a stake in the outcome now, too, because we've invested our own emotions in the story.

So what kind of stakes have you given your characters? What choices do they face, and what are the consequences of each option? How do you make the stakes even higher?


Enid Wilson said...

I'm guilty as well. I don't like angst for my hero and heroine at all. Perhaps I should concentrate on writing comedies.

Chemical Fusion

Marnee said...

Okay, you need to tell me what happens to the guy on the landmine. I don't know if I can finish my day without knowing.

This is a great reminder, Donna. I'm about to finish the "middle" of my story (okay, the rough, very rough, sandpaper rough draft of the middle) and this is where I'm supposed to be setting up how high the stakes are. Now ask me if I've done that.

Go on. Feel free to ask.

Oh, alright, I'll tell you. I don't think so. Honestly, I'm not sure. I know what the stakes are. I don't think it's that I don't have the potential in my story for very high stakes. I just need to make sure I put them in there, really drag out the conflict.

I'm working on it.

Great blog Donna.

Donna said...

Enid, I think it's tough no matter what we write. I write comedies and it can seem like the stakes aren't high enough because of the lack of angst. But the choices have to really matter to the characters, and the consequences have to matter as well. So I try to keep that in mind as I'm making everyone laugh. :)

Donna said...

Marn, I originally included what happened to the guy on the landmine, but decided to keep the suspense going for a bit. *evil laugh*

It's awesome that you have stakes, and if they need to be made higher, you can do that during revisions. Because by then you'll know what is important to the characters, and what choices they need to make (and which ones they're avoiding). You can also heighten the suspense in scenes where the stakes are demonstrated. So don't worry about the sandpaper draft not having everything in it.

Writing definitely requires on-the-job training--even though I always want to say, "Okay, I've got it now!" after each thing I learn. LOL

Bosun said...

This topic is my kryptonite. *cowers in a corner* I do think I'm getting better though. The stakes in the current WIP are much higher than they were in the previous two stories. An entire community could lose their homes. He could lose his brother (figuratively speaking.) She could hurt the man she's going to marry or break his heart or only break her own and lose the man she really loves.

I gots stakes in this one. Now I have to figure out what to do with them! LOL! This is totally new for me.

And I need to know what happened to landmine dude! Oddly, this kind of life and death week after week show loses me pretty quick. I find the stress too much or if the resolution of the "life & death" situation is crazy implausible, I'm out. The practical voice in my brain simply won't let reality go. Silly practical voice.

Donna said...

Terri, we can all cower together! It's tough to do, and I think I'll always struggle, or at least worry about if I'm doing it right. (Maybe we have stakes about whether we have stakes. LOL)

It sounds like you have great stakes in your WIP. They provide conflict for the characters, as well as amongst the characters, and leads the story towards the black moment.

One reason I like Flashpoint so much is because of the characters' interactions, and I'm fascinated with teams that save others, and the very practical way they go about it. I read a lot of romantic suspense, so that may explain my interest. There's something intriguing to me about those men. :)

Donna said...

Here's what I originally had in the post about landmine guy:

We already know which choice he's going to make. We don't want him to, because we don't want him to die, and we know how hard it will be for the best friend to bear this kind of emotional pain.

And yet we know there's really no other choice to be made.

So when he removes his cell phone from his pants pocket, and says, in a relatively calm voice, after swallowing several times in a row, "Hi, Dad, is Mom there?", our hearts start to break.

Hellion said...

Oh, God, he make a call to his parents and then lifts his foot off the detonator? *pulling at hair* I couldn't bear to watch this show. That's awful.

But yes, I did think this guy is going to lift his foot to protect his friend. These guys are in this unit to protect people--so it would be his instinct to do it, even at the risk of himself. Ugh.

I thought if you didn't tell us the ending, I was going to hunt you down. You can't NOT tell us. *LOL* Though really excellent blog writing to keep us in suspense.

Donna said...

Hellie, he didn't lift his foot immediately. And if I recall, his mom wasn't there, and he didn't say goodbye to his dad -- so he was being heroic to the end. It really was well done. Not going for excessive drama. In fact, it was a great example of letting the reader (viewer) fill in the blanks, and being a participant in the scene rather than hitting them over the head with obvious stuff.

I was going to try to wait longer to give this info, but I guess my instincts told me I'd have a target on me all day. LOL

Hellion said...

I'm in the corner with Bo'sun. I'm awful at making stakes. Right now the only stakes I've got are if they fail marriage bootcamp, they're stuck being married to each other--and they already hate being married to each other; if they pass marriage bootcamp, they can elect to divorce--but if they pass marriage bootcamp, they will like each other too much to divorce and they've spent all this time hating each other to give in now.

See, it sucks. I did such a poor job. I'm going to go cry in the corner now. Bye.

Bosun said...

HE DIES?!?!?!?!?! Now I want to hunt those writers down and stick a grenade up their collective noses. WTF???

I used to devour RS books. Can't remember when or why I stopped, but it might have been when the stakes in my own life went skyward. Not sure. (Stupid swiss cheese brain!)

Since I had to force myself to avoid the news last night, I don't want to see this kind of real life reflecting heartbreak in my entertainment viewing. LOL! But that does sound like very good writing. I'm a firm believer in letting the reader/watcher fill in the details and their experience of the scene will be better than anything you could have tried to write.

Donna said...

No crying, Hellion! Let's work with this. Can we find a way to increase the consequences of their choices, or their actions?

Let's have some pirate-y brainstorming. :)

They are in marriage bootcamp, so I'm guessing they need to fix things in their marriage. But it sounds like they don't want to be married, so they don't have any real motivation to make this work. If it doesn't work, and they divorce, will it matter to humankind (i.e., they won't exist?)

I think they have to have something else hinge on their success/failure at marriage bootcamp. What can we come up with?

Bosun said...

I get why you might miss the significance, Hellie, but divorce or not to divorce is HUGE stakes. Trust me. Been there done that. LOL! It sucks on so many levels and reaches into so many emotional and intellectual triggers of the people involved. You've got stakes my friend. Ballsy stakes.

Donna said...

Terri, I can't watch the news. It's filled with too much heartbreak for me. I don't seek out heartbreaking reading or TV material, but in some instances, such as this one, I can get swept up in it, probably because I know it's drama. (Unlike the manufactured kind in "reality" shows. LOL)

Donna said...

I agree that a divorce involves stakes, but can we make it bigger? Because we all know that divorce can be survived, because people do it, so what can make THIS divorce seem more important than the ones other people experience?

What can hinge on it that is so dreadful that the readers hope and pray they DON'T get divorced?

Bosun said...

Okay, this is going to seem kind of crazy, but what if we amp up Hellie's stuff by going the HP route. Stay with me here. I'm always amazed at how high Rowling made the stakes in the Goblet of Fire tri-wizard thing. I mean, losing nearly always could have resulted in death. The real thing. These were kids!

I know that A&E go through a series of challenges. I'm not suggesting they face a dragon, but if they challenges get a bit more intense so, say, one does have to actually save the other from the big D - and I don't mean divorce - then that would certainly amp things up.

But then again, that's not Hellie's story. Just the trail my brain followed after Donna's comment...

Sin said...

But how much conflict is too much? My brain goes in fifty different directions. I want to do this and I want to do that. But when is it too much for the hero and heroine to handle? Divorce, stalkers, double crossing, family secrets. Hero killing the heroine's father. The detail matter I assume. Is it still consider high stakes even if the father deserved it? I suppose if I needed to go levels higher maybe they could kill each other's fathers. Hm, I will think on this.

Love this blog. I love conflict.

Dear DRD,

I heart landmines. For Christmas I think I might buy you one. Please use cation when playing with it. I like my DRD in one piece.


Evil Twin

Donna said...

Terri, I think that's great. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage since I haven't read Hellie's story, and I only know the Harry Potter stuff via hearsay. . .but I know what you're saying, and I think that's a good springboard.

And I'm not trying to put myself out here as an expert on this topic. Oh hell no. I'm learning by discussing this, so I have a very selfish motive. :)

Bosun said...

I love how my stakes are "She could hurt his feelings" and Sin goes right to "They could kill each others fathers!" LMAO!!

Seems to me the "high concept" stuff that blows everyone's socks off always includes life and death. This is what gives me a complex, because my stories don't get that intense. Not in the external story part anyway. Though personally, I think having your heart really broken can feel like dying inside so it's "like" life and death.

That's what Hellie is always telling me. It just has to feel "life & death" to the characters. (Then she throws out that line about puppy love she'll hopefully throw in here. *g*)

Donna said...

Dear Evil Twin,

Thanks for the heads up about the landmine. I'll alert the delivery guy since I'm certain you will not mark the package "Fragile", as that would take all of the sport out of it.

Very truly yours,

Donna said...

Sin, I love how your mind works. It terrifies me, but I'm incredibly fascinated too. :)

I'm not sure what is considered too much. I think it has to matter so much to the character that they can't just throw their hands in the air and say, "Oh well!" The reader has to know it's important to the character, and understand what will result if this doesn't happen.

Donna said...

I love how my stakes are “She could hurt his feelings” and Sin goes right to “They could kill each others fathers!” LMAO!!

LOL -- me too!

And I agree that it has to feel like life and death to the characters, no matter what it is that is important to them. It represents something they need, or don't have, or have always wanted -- and if they can't get it, then their life seems over.

Hellion said...

I've been told that line is attributed to Billy Graham.

"It may be puppy love, but it's real to the puppy."

I do have a scene (or two) where it is rather life and death (they nearly drown), but otherwise, I don't have a whole lot of life and death going on.

The unraveling of human existence--I like that--and yet, just because they're sick of their marriage, they'd be willing to do that?Talk about unlikable characters. Then if you did give them viable reasons for it--like say they were cheating on each other--that makes them WAY unlikable.

OR if I used something that was A&E, like they hadn't forgiven each other about Cain, say they blamed each other for the outcome of that--that makes the book much, much darker than I planned to pursue. Also, focusing on the death of a child in a marriage would be impossible to ever make lighthearted again.

So while I appreciate having stakes and stakes are essential, imperative, non-negotiable--I don't want to compromise my voice and tone either. Don't you have to have stakes that match your story?

Bosun said...

I do think you can create too much. I watched a movie once where the writer took "Make his life worse and then make it WORSE" to the Nth degree. By the end of that movie I really was screaming, "ARE YOU KIDDING ME???"

That is not the reaction you want from your reader. LOL! Or if that is the reaction you want from your reader, then by all means, have at it.

Donna said...

Hellie, I agree that the stakes have to match your story, and I don't want you to compromise your voice or tone either. I would never suggest that, because that is your golden ticket. :)

Since I write lighthearted stories, I think the stakes can seem less dire -- so I have to remind myself, "Why does this matter so much to the character?" and "What will they do when they have to make a difficult choice?"

I always go back to this scenario, which I've blogged about before, the story "Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris". She's a British charwoman who scrimps and saves so she can go to Paris and buy a designer gown. It matters to her, in a huge way. She'll probably never get to wear it anywhere, but it represents a better life that she aspires to.

I'm cheering her on, wanting her to get that dress, especially since she works her fingers to the bone. So when the Paris designer refuses to sell her a dress, because she's not worthy, I'm crying right along with her.

So those aren't life and death, but they DO matter, and that's in a lighthearted story. So it's possible. But it's not necessarily EASY. :)

Sin said...

Hm, is A and E don't get back together, E could always end up with Lucy and this could rewrite history. The ultimate temptation. Girls love the "bad" boys. I mean there really isn't any hope for Lucy that that would happen but it could be a very real thought in A's brain. And the boss might not think it's fun for E to toy around with Lucy. The boss tells A, "Woo your wife back. Now." A says, "No way. She's old news." The boss says, "I'll give you X amount of days to do it or I'll take your golf game away."

Then we both know A will jump all over that.


Donna said...

Terri, I think things can get over-the-top, in a way that is exhausting for the reader. It should be more than just "crap on the character until he's buried". He should get to prevail, or say, "Eff it, this isn't worth it anymore". LOL

Hellion said...

Yes, God forbid he be forbidden golf. *LOL* Ironically I don't have Lucy in this version so far. He's too much of a scene whore and I get tired of trying to reign in his ass. It's like having Deerhunter running around my living room, shouting, "I'm hotter than Ryan Reynolds!" all the time. It's cute, but I don't have time for it.

@Donna, now I have to find Mrs. 'Arris's story. I love that story premise, and I would be crying right with her. Things that DO MATTER. That's the key. Life and death aren't the only things that matter; and you know what, to some people, life and death aren't even the most important things that do matter.

Sin said...

OMG, I spit out my gum. For some reason he was running around naked and shouting it because that's a very guy thing to do.

At least he didn't say, "I'm Conan the Barbarian..." Sweet Jesus.

Hellion said...

Not yet. *droll look* I'm waiting for that one.

Bosun said...

ROFLMAO!!!! Oh the images this is creating in my brain. *choke* *gasp*

That Paris designer gets a grenade up her nose too.

Choices. That's the focus for the stakes. The character has to make a choice and often, it's a no win choice. I don't know how I managed that in this WIP, but it's there. Choose love and lose your brother. Choose love and hurt the man who loves you. Choose not to hurt the man who loves you and lose the man you truly love.

There is NO WIN in these choices. Holy Shit, how the hell am I going to make this work? Eeep!!!

Hellion said...

Holy Shit, how the hell am I going to make this work?

MAGIC. Don't worry.

Donna said...

LOL -- Terri, that's the hard part, making it work. No wonder I want to keep the stakes low!

Okay, I have to jump ship for a while. I've got to finish reading the ARC of Ashley March's newest, so I can get my post written and delivered to H&H next week. And write up the interview questions for when she's here next month. :)

I'll catch ya all later!

Sin said...

Get out the magic wand. Wave it around three times. Slap a bomb onto someone's chest. And wa-la.

Bosun said...

Employ the woo woo. Got it.

No bombs! Though, Sin, a new secondary character popped up in the story last week and he's totally the image of Ranger in my brain. Randy Novarro. Buff. Adrenaline junky. Owns a water sports shop for tourists (think parasailing) and a fitiness center.

He seems to think he should eventually get his own story, but he is totally knocking on the wrong author's brain. LOL! The poor guy. I'll think about it. If I survive this current one (and the one after it) first.

Sin said...

You can write it, Ter! I have complete confidence in your ability to bring him to life. I'm sure he will do it himself. He sounds like quite the character. The kinda man I wanna get to know.

Bosun said...

See, that's a sign right there. My heroes are rarely the kind I think, "Sin would really like this guy." LOL! But I'll try. For you, darling!

Maybe his heroine could be named Christie. Hmmm....

P. Kirby said...

My favorite high stakes show is Dexter. The writing is just brilliant. Dexter is a stone-cold killer, a psychopath who unleashes his "dark passenger" on other serial killers. Which makes him a sort of vigilante and anti-hero. Like all psychopaths he is outwardly normal; works as a blood-splatter analyst for Miami PD; his sister's a cop; dad was a cop. He's got a nice girlfriend and is helping raise her two kids. He even drives a mini-van (good for transporting children and dead bodies). The usual "stakes" involve his struggle to keep the two sides of his life separate.

What I've noticed is that often the writers up the stakes by having him make decisions that the viewer knows are going to go wrong. Not too-stupid-to-live decisions. There's a good reason for his choices. But his choices, nonetheless, have me saying, "Oh, no, Dexter. This is so not going to work out." And I watch in edge-of-my-seat horror, wondering how the hell he's going to get out of this mess.

Basically, the writers up the sense of drama by making the viewer/reader privy to information that the protagonists lacks. I think this is something that any writer can use, even if the stakes aren't life and death. Hero thinks he's found the perfect way to fix his broken marriage. Heroine (or someone else), meanwhile has done something that will totally negate hero's efforts. Reader is thinking, "Oh, crap, can't these two ever get a break?"

Bosun said...

I've heard so much about this show, Pat. But I think it's on HBO, right? Which I don't have. And I'm honestly not sure if I'd watch it or not. LOL! But the writing is praised far and wide. Such a unique premise, which is almost non-existent on television today.

I like this idea about the reader knowing something the protagonist doesn't. That's an excellent idea. I think I recognize this as the moments I'm watching something and end up yelling at the screen, "Don't walk through that door!"And I don't mean in an axe murderer on the other side kind of situation.

Very compelling. I need to examine thw WIP for opportunities of this nature.

Hellion said...

Basically, the writers up the sense of drama by making the viewer/reader privy to information that the protagonists lacks. I think this is something that any writer can use, even if the stakes aren’t life and death. Hero thinks he’s found the perfect way to fix his broken marriage. Heroine (or someone else), meanwhile has done something that will totally negate hero’s efforts. Reader is thinking, “Oh, crap, can’t these two ever get a break?”

Okay, this is my favorite brilliant tidbit for the week. I'm going to have to figure out how to combine it with Donna's "What MATTERS?" thing and go to town...

Donna said...

I'm back!

And Pat, yes, that is a wonderful way to up the stakes, letting the reader in on the info that the protagonist hasn't been clued in to yet. It increases the sympathy factor, and keeps the reader wishing they could help out by giving the character some vital info. :)

Great suggestions today!

Janga said...

Ter, I think your stakes are fine. The character has to want desperately two things that are mutually exclusive and be forced to make a choice. The land mine guy wants to live and he wants to others to stay out of danger. Your characters want each other and they want the brother happy. Hellie's A & E want, I assume, to please their Maker and to be free to find happiness as they define it. Dori wants an ordinary life and she wants her extraordinary ex. Max wants Dori and he wants his superstar career. I reviewed a book last week that I loved and thought was brilliantly written, and the hero was in love with his wife and family--and with a car--and thought he couldn't have them both.

Since I don't read thrillers, urban fantasy, etc. and read comparatively little RS, most of the books I read don't involve life and death issues, but they do involve choices that will determine whether or not the characters will have happy, fulfilled, productive lives. I'm a fan of quiet books, but the characters are still making choices about what matters most.

Bosun said...

This is a really good day. LOL! I mean, we're brilliant even on our dim days, but today we're freaking sparkling.

Pat wins the booty prize so far. I love that tip.

Donna said...

today we’re freaking sparkling

Yep, like a vampire in Forks, Washington. :)

Janga, I think you've described it perfectly, the characters wanting two things that are mutually exclusive, and having to make a choice. Sometimes that is easier for me to grasp when I see an extreme example -- like the one with the landmine -- and once I grasp it, I can dial it back to fit the things I write.

Hellion said...

Hellie’s A & E want, I assume, to please their Maker and to be free to find happiness as they define it.

I'm totally having that flashback at that writing meeting where Kris shouted at me and said, "I know what happens!" (which I hadn't written yet) and I said, "Go ahead, guess" and she did, and since I had nothing and hers was TOTALLY brilliant I said, "That's it! You guessed it!" and then I wrote it.

I mean, I gave her credit for it, obviously...

But Janga's insight sounds just like me. I'm such a parent pleaser, it's not even funny, so it makes sense that A&E would be too, to an extent.

Bosun said...

Thank you for the reassurance, Janga. I am proud that I've managed to instill something real in the way of conflict in this WIP, but as the story came as a love triangle with two brothers involved, the conflict was a gift from the beginning.

I need to learn how to create these choices when it's not a love triangle. That's when it's tougher for me.

Bosun said...

Wow. Donna, you just had to go there. LOL!

P. Kirby said...


I don't even have cable TV. I refuse to pay for TV. I get Dexter, True Blood, Californication, Deadwood, Rome, Spartacus, et. al, via Netflix. I'm always a season or two behind, but that's okay.

Bosun said...

Oh, I see now. I gave up Netflix because I was paying and never using it. That's a good way to get those shows though. Much cheaper than premium channels!

Sin said...

Maybe his heroine could be named Christie. Hmmm….

I like that idea, but somehow I think there must be a qualifier attached to it...

Bosun said...

You mean like Crazy Christie?

Donna said...

Terri, you checked her for weapons before you said that, right?

*steps back a few paces*

*steps back a few more, just to be safe*

Bosun said...

Knowing Sin as I do, I'm sure she'll take it as a compliment.

*stands behind Donna, just in case*

Donna said...

*twirls around and ends up behind Terri*

Yeah, you're probably right about the compliment part.

Hellion said...

You know if she shoots her gun, it'll kill two pirates with one bullet. I suggest hiding in different territories. *LOL*

2nd Chance said...

So, where was I today? Thinking it was Tuesday and there was no blog.

*hangs head

Ah...now...of course he dies. It's Canadian television. They'd kill him on the BBC, too. Only in America would MacGuyver pop up with a duct tape solution.

High stakes. Well, in the book going through edits right now, the stakes are the invasion of the Caribbean from an evil steampunk world and the return of the captain to the control of a maniacal pediphile.

Fun stuff!

Current WIP? Hmmm, the control of aliens and their technology by bad guys who undermine the order of the world via fake terrorist threats, etc...or the aliens step out of the shadows, reveal themselves and risk being targets for a paranoid world...or a sorta HEA. I'm going for the HEA...

Sorry, I missed the day. Damn it. I knew something might be going on out there and I was oblivious!

Bosun said...

It's not like you did NOTHING yesterday. LOL! You had appointments. You saw people. You edited. You're fine!

2nd Chance said...

Next time...poke me! ;-)

Bosun said...

Fine. Just remember. You asked for it!