Thursday, September 17, 2015

Or Else – How to raise the stakes in a story

A thief escaping from the police and the stolen car hears a baby crying in the backseat. A woman applying for her dream job is fired from her current position, which she needs to keep her home. A baseball player who has to get a hit to win the game finds out his estranged son is in the stands.

Stories need stakes. And they need to be vital to the protagonist. But they also need to be important to readersand made more important as the story progresses.

Even good writers who always get the fundamentals of goal, motivation, and conflict right, often dont pay enough attention to stakes. From the very beginning of the story, stakes need to be high enough and universal enough in their appeal to engage the audience. While we all want to win, a story about a kid who wants to win a spelling bee is not compelling in and of itself. There has to be a downside. There have to be consequences for failure.

Sometimes, as with a survival struggle, the consequences are obvious and real to the audience. There may be opportunities to raise the stakes by, for instance, highlighting unfinished business like an apology that needs to be said, but the audience is likely to hang on to the end even without alteration of stakes because the obstacles get tougher. But this doesn't work for many stories. So here are some thoughts on ways you can raise stakes.

Now it's personal. This is tried-and-true, and you can almost set your watch to the time in a show like Law & Order where are the search for justice becomes personal because one of the characters has a building relationship with a victim or the crime becomes associated with a family member or a partner gets hurt and must be avenged.

Investment. In the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first reaches the Emerald City and is denied entrance, she says, "But we've already come such a long way." We know what she means because we've been along for the journey. Her making this investment explicit is brilliant and precludes a search for other options.

The goal becomes more valuable. The Ark of the Covenant isn't just a prize artifact, It's a doomsday machine.

The character is more vulnerable. This is a standard for the romance genre. As the story goes on, the love interest becomes more essential to happiness and the protagonist is more exposed in terms of revealed needs. It is common for needs to go from physical to emotional to something that touches on fate, identity and the soul. Life without this person becomes unimaginable.

There are a lot of other ways to raise stakes shifts in power, changes in what the characters value, adding a potential loss of something vital through failure to potential gains coming from success, and moving down Maslows Pyramid to more fundamental needs. (Adding trivial, me too stakes not helpful is not helpful and can dilute the story. It's important not to diminish stakes or to add new ones that are less vital than those that are already known.

One more pointall mistakes must be clear to the reader. It is good to do what Dorothy did and make them explicit. This is not a place to get artful.

Stakes and rising stakes provide one of the most effective ways to keep readers turning the pages. Get them to fret. Get them to worry. Make it excruciating. They'll love you for it.

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