Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge—R is for Raise [the Stakes], and why you NEED to do that NOW!

Do you write fiction? If so, you need to raise the stakes in your story, and you need to raise them NOW! This is not an option! If you don’t raise the stakes, no one will ever read your book. All those countless hours—all the heart and soul you put into your book—you might as well throw them in the trash right now if you don’t. And you can’t afford to push this off any longer. Raise the stakes! Raise them now

And that’s what raising the stakes is all about.

It’s about lighting a fire under your character and turning a want into a desperate need.

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Because the more desperately your character needs something, the more desperate your reader will be to find out if your character gets it and how. Raising the stakes will keep your reader engrossed in your story and wanting—no needing—to read more. And that’s something you desperately want as a writer, isn’t it?

Raising the stakes also solves the dreaded writing problem known as the sagging middle.

Many writers have great openings and great endings, but they kind of get lost in the middle of their story. By focusing throughout on what the main character wants and how he or she deals with the obstacles on the path to getting it—sometimes known as the “character arc” or the “emotional arc” of a story—your story’s middle won’t sag. You just need to stay focused! Stay focused and raise, raiSE, RAISE THE STAKES!

Okay, so HOW do you raise the stakes?

I wrote about this in my blog series on Improv for Writers. Improv uses raising the stakes to keep audiences engaged in longer skits. That’s something writers can and should—no, desperately need—to do, too.

As I wrote in “Improv for Writers, Part 1 of 3: How Improv Can Help You Write Faster, Better, and More Creatively”: “There are two ways to raise the stakes. The first is by the main character wanting whatever it is he wants even more. The second is by giving him more obstacles. These obstacles can be internal or external but they have to come out of whatever it is the character wants. They can’t just be random obstacles thrown at the main character.

In part two of that same series—Mind Games: Five Solitaire Games for Fiction Writers—I wrote about an improv-for-one game I created that will show you how to “Raise the Stakes” in no time:

“To play this game as a writer, start by creating a character and giving that character something he or she wants. Now write a list of the reasons that character wants this thing, what it will mean if the character doesn’t get it, and what it will mean if the character does. One part of raising the stakes is about raising the character’s desire, so put these reasons in order from least important to most important….

“Next, create a list of the kind of things that might get in his or her way. I like to call this Murphy’s Law for Writers, which I sum up as, “If anything can go wrong (for your main character), it should.” These obstacles have to come out of what it is the character wants, not random, outside obstacles. They can come from the character himself (internal conflict), other characters, or the environment. One of the best obstacles is time itself, because if the main character doesn’t achieve his or her goal by a certain time, it will never happen....
“Create other characters to make him need to reach his goal more or to provide obstacles to reaching his goal…. Keep raising the stakes and keep having your main character do everything possible to achieve the goal until the question of whether or not your main character gets what he wants is answered. Your audience will be riveted, because your audience will need to know the answer to that question.”

Here’s an example using Gilbert Garfinkle at the start of Why My Love Life Sucks:

Gilbert Garfinkle from Why My Love Life Sucks (The Legend of Gilbert the Fixer, book one)

Desire: to take apart, figure out, and fix the world so that everything makes sense

Raising Desire
Gilbert wants to make sense of the world, because if he can understand it, he can fix it.
He can’t fix something if he can’t make sense of it, and in general he can’t make sense of girls. He also can’t make sense of the existence of vampires, so having both of those enter his life in the form of Amber is a huge obstacle.
Gilbert wants to go to MIT, where he expects to meet like-minded people who will make him even better at at fixing the world.

As a vampire, Gilbert can’t stay awake during the day. So how can he hope to finish high school and take the SATs? And if he doesn’t manage to do those things, how will he go to MIT?
Gilbert wants to fix the world so that he can be worthy of the smartest, most amazing girl in the world, Jenny Chen.
Gilbert is too afraid to tell Jenny how he feels, and the last thing he needs is Amber hanging around, giving his friends the impression that he’s already got a girlfriend.
Gilbert wants to become the scientific genius he thinks his father would have wanted him to be. He wants to be worthy of his brilliant father’s legacy.
He can’t know the world if he can’t even make sense of it. And vampires and pretty girls who choose him don’t make sense. Vampires aren’t even scientifically possible. What would his father think about him getting turned into one?
He desperately needs to believe the world makes sense, and that means avoid things that don’t make sense to him: in other words, most teenage girls.
Vampire charm makes him irresistible to most girls, and his fear of them is even greater now that he feels the urge to bite them, too. Could his life get any worse?

You don’t need to use everything on your list, just the parts you think will work best for your story. The important thing is to keep raising the stakes by turning a desire into a greater and greater need and presenting your main character with ever greater obstacles.

Because the greater your character’s needs becomes, the greater your reader’s need to keep reading becomes, too.

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