Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stories Off the Leash 1 - Characters in jeopardy

"When you're in combat, you're not fighting for your honor or a ribbon or even your country. You're fighting for the guy next to you. You're fighting for your buddy."

A retired marine told me this when I was in college. It's relevant to your writing if you think about it in terms of the stakes you create in your story. Certainly a macro view -- moving from a neighborhood at risk to a city at risk to a nation, planet, or galaxy -- can raise the stakes. It may even add to reader engagement, especially in a visual medium like the movies. But it can become abstract and distancing, too. To me, the death of Obi-Wan in Star Wars is more upsetting than the destruction of Alderaan. I know Obi-Wan, but my strongest connection to Alderaan is an indirect one, Princess Leia's reaction.

Good stories raise the stakes throughout. Great stories raise the personal stakes throughout because we experience stories through individual characters, not crowds. (Looking at this concept from the opposite direction, when a villain wipes out innocents, even in a movie, the experience becomes more visceral and important if the death of one individual is given attention.)

Raising the stakes is about the potential for bad things to happen. The emotional score goes up as you do the following:
  • Make it real. At some point, show that something really bad can actually happen. This makes readers/audience members worry.
  • Make it individual. When there's one character we care about at risk in means more than a busload. Unless it's a busload of kids.
  • Make it personal. Put the protagonist at risk or, better yet, his/her loved ones.
  • Make it public. When bad things happen publicly, there is potential for humiliation. And it's impossible to pretend it didn't happen.
  • Make it irreversible. If the bad thing that happens is easily fixed or the protagonist can do something that makes it feel as if the bad thing never happened, that lessens the stakes. If the harm cannot be fixed (like when the hero in Misery loses his foot), the reader can't imagine the harm away.
  • Make it unfair. Damage that comes to people who in no way deserve it hits a lot harder.
  • Add dilemma. When the protagonist faces two bad things and gets to choose which one, it's excruciating.
  • Make it a choice. A classic choice for a protagonist is between stopping an evil by committing an evil or doing nothing and allowing something horrible to happen. Honor or horror?
In addition to the above, it's worth exploring the potential for bad things up and down Maslow's Hierarcy of Needs. Survival is always engaging. As are threats to close relationships. And you can play these off each other.

Of course, stakes are all in the future. Within the story, some of these bad things must actually happen. And the bad things that happen need to put the screws to the protagonist and create change and growth. They shouldn't be bad just for the sake of being bad.

If you want to take emotions to a higher level, consider blending stakes in a way that is  uncomfortable, provocative, or ironic.

In Gone With the Wind, there's a scene where Scarlett is looking for a doctor for Melanie.  When the camera pulls back, her urgent need is put into a bigger perspective, as the screen fills with the wounded and the dying. Does Scarlett's lack of perspective make her seem less compassionate? Or more human? Or both?

In Casablanca, Rick reduces Ilsa to tears when he says, "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." He has put their love in perspective (and aside) for the sake of a higher cause.

This is how you go from effective... to memorable.

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