Saturday, July 7, 2012

Bigger 2 - Put Everything at Risk

Damon Knight once looked me in the eye and said, "I enjoyed reading your story, but... "

But? What could be wrong with my story?

"But no one is going to care much about a guy who will lose his job if he fails. Raise the stakes."

Okay. Right. Put the Universe in jeopardy or something. But what? I lost interest in the story before I found the answer.

One way to make a story bigger -- and make it more likely that your hours of effort will reach your audience -- is the raise the stakes. But how?

Here are some suggestions:
  • Find out why it matters so much to your character. In the nonfiction book I'm writing now, the heroine, America's first female botanist, studied hard, defied society by turning down a suitor, slipped into a forest filled with hostile Native Americans, and incurred her father's wrath by outdoing him. For what? To study plants? I think she did it to save her sanity. 
  • Make it a decision. My character was pushed into botany, but she chose to become one of the best, and she sacrificed to make it happen.
  • Make it irreversible. Making it impossible for a character to step back from a decision and return to life as it was. Once my character turned down her suitor, she shackled herself to her father's goals. She would succeed in becoming a scientist, or she would spend the rest of her life in charge of cheese production.
  • Imagine the worst. If my character fails, she loses her job.  Hmm.  But she really loses the chance to explore, to be the first to discover new species, to have rich conversations with  people like Benjamin Franklin, to act with a level of autonomy, and to keep a brilliant and agile mind occupied in a world of routine.
  • Imagine the best. Full success would mean becoming famous. A trailblazer who showed women were as capable as men. Having new species named in her honor. Possibly even traveling to Europe and being feted by the great scientists there.
  • Play another card. Why is "Luke, I am your father," one of the most memorable lines in film? Because from then on, Luke knew he would achieve his goal only if he was willing to sacrifice his father.
  • Make it a good card. Luke also had an amazing, new possibility open up before him when Darth Vader told him the secret of his paternity. He could forget his hopeless quest with the rebel alliance, and be more powerful than he had imagined.
  • Oh, and make the revelation painful. Darth's little secret made the beloved Obi-Wan Kenobi a liar. Ouch.
Since my story, Ingenious Daughter, is nonfiction, I can't give it a Star Wars moment. I can only look for them in the past. But fiction that aspires to be bigger needs to look for these moments and test the limits.


  1. I'm so jealous that Damon Knight looked you in the eye... ;-(

    This was a very relevant/timely post for me. I'm working on a SF story that I had put on the shelf last year to rest. I discovered with this current go at it that in my previous effort, my character had complete control of everything, that she would not let go of her control of the entire situation of the story. She was in a bad "place" but she made decisions that kept her in a place of power. This time it was pretty obvious what her fear is: loss of her power/control. Sooo....she's in for a world of pain, now...

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Damon was a keen critic and a wonderful person. He lives on in the MANY writers he mentored.
    I am glad this post prompted you to create tough times for your character. The more engaging they are, the more they need to be tortured. (This perspective should not be carried into real life.)

  3. Why can't you put a "Star Wars" moment in non-fiction? If you can't find on in the historical record, all that means is that you haven't had one handed to you on a silver platter. But you are the one developing a figure known only to us from a few documents into a rounded character. Let her own traits lead you to develop a plausible Star Wars moment.
    Let me know how it goes :-)

  4. This was written two years ago. I have since given the story a Star Wars moment, but I've reframed it as fiction "inspired by" the real story. I don't know if it is generally true, but I spent four years trying to tell this tale as nonfiction, working from a fairly scanty base of historical documents. Perhaps because of the fears generated by "A Million Little Pieces," more than one agent asked for proofs of every dramatic moment. Even dramatizing a scene where she made cheese was called into question. For my own story, I'm in a good space, but nonfiction needs to be approached with caution.