Good Advice: Raising the Stakes

While searchingGabriele Negri Photo for more writing tips/advice, I found this post on Jami Gold blog about raising the stakes in your story (along with this one and this one, too, from Janice Hardy). In theory, I’ve always understood how this works. I get that there are reactions to every action, that there are consequences, and that each time things should get a little tougher and harder.

But in practice? Most, if not all of my stakes are something like “If she doesn’t do this/get this thing….. she will die.” Dramatic, I know.

More importantly, when I have to make things worse, to build up to that Dark Moment, I have a hard time figuring out what’s worse than her dying. Everyone else dies too? She lives and everyone dies? …Eternal pain? It’s practically all the same.

And so, I’ve decided to use the example that Jami Gold gave, and apply it to my story, because I work best with examples and application. Here’s one of my protagonist, Makaya’s earlier goals in the story:

Goal: Makaya  wants to travel to Kovaki to get ‘Kan’on’s sword

Stake (“failure would result in…”): (Original thought: Well.. she can’t become the Savior)

This doesn’t seem like much when its shown so plainly, so I had to play with motivations to make this feel more personal.  She wants to fulfill her twin brother’s wish to become the Savior; wants to become stronger because she constantly feels weak; she believes that becoming the Savior will make her stronger.

See? I’m not very good at this.

If the threat of death is the strongest, biggest stake, I need to think of smaller things that affect her, still hinder her process, and build up throughout the story. Maybe something like this:

First, she can’t find the sword.

Then when she finds it, she can’t pull it out ( sort of an Arthurian theme).

Once she finally get the sword, it’s worn and useless. And she doesnt’ feel the ‘change’ of becoming the Savior like everyone said she’d feel.

She return to her friend, who had traveled with her, to tell her the news, and she missing.

She tries to find her, but she needs help. And the only people who can help her are the ones she previously rejected, because they wanted her to fight in the war with them. Before, she was in control because they needed her. Now, she needs them just as much as they need her, if not more so.

You get the point.

After reading those blog post several times, looking for examples of raising the stakes of different stories, I think I finally have a handle on this.

I’ll continue to work at this, building the stakes slowly to that end point (possible death that I may or may not have talked about very early on) and see what happens.

Now, I wanna hear from you all. What tips have you heard recently? From who, and how did it help you?

 

**P.S. Check out my flash fiction post here, as well as the other talented writers of Paradise on Paper!**

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14 thoughts on “Good Advice: Raising the Stakes

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing the tips…I like how you broke it down in terms of your story. This is something I also struggled with early on in my manuscript, was characters’ motivations. Sure, there’s the age old good vs. evil, but there’s always more than that. They’re all people, with dreams and fears and loved ones, that affect every single one of their decisions, big or small. Death isn’t always the biggest stake, sometimes it’s a lot smaller. Maybe losing someone they care about, or their loved ones getting hurt, or them failing their quest, or facing their deepest fear, is much worse to them than death itself. I read a post recently that explained the most powerful story climaxes are not those with the most action, but the most reaction (emotion and personal investment). Death has kind of become desensitized in our world, so a lot of times it isn’t very effective in establishing stakes on its own. Keep working on it, and good luck!

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  2. I think, perhaps, you need to examine the character’s goal. He goal isn’t to get the sword – that is her quest. He goal is to become the savior. So now, why does she want to be the savior? What are the motivations to her goals? Well, she has family, yes? Friends? People who are important to her? Maybe her goal isn’t to become the savior, but to do whatever it takes to protect her loved ones. Then, by slowly building the threat to them, you make her quest that much more urgent. Give her visions or something. As she comes closer and closer to finding the sword, she starts seeing more and more visions of her loved ones in peril, dying, being oppressed. Every task she fails, she gets a vision of one of them dying. Stakes are raised and the character becomes more driven. Does that make sense?

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    • Yup. Getting the sword was just one of the goals she has in the story. I agree that becoming the Savior is her goal, overall. I’ve been trying to find the right motivation for it (and I did pull from the idea of using it to protect her loved ones) but I wasn’t sure if what I had was strong enough to carry through the entire story. A lot of what she goes through is discovering that the Savior isn’t really what she thought it was, and then must decide if she really wants to becoming it anyway.

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        • Originally, to protect her best friend, and to fulfill her brothers wishes. He believed he was the Savior, and desperately want to take on this role to end the war (which is what he believed the Savior was for) but went missing after trying to protect his sister in a home invasion…. I still don’t think this is strong enough.

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          • I’m going to ask some questions which could strengthen the resolve behind these goals. Why is she so close to her best friend? Why does that friend need protecting? From what? Why does she feel compelled to take on her brother’s mission, when he is missing? Why does she think she is able to do it? A savior is usually a title tied to prophesy, not just someone who can wield a certain sword. If it were, then the sword would have been obtained long ago…if it is only obtainable by meeting certain criteria, though, that makes it far more weighty in impact to a story.

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          • Okay. I’ve thought about these for a bit.

            – She’s close to her best friend because she’s the only person who accepted her into the family after her parents were killed and said friend’s father took them in.The best friend needs protecting from a collegue( i guess you could call him that) of her father’s who wants wants to make the MC suffer through her friend(backstory stuff).

            – She feels compelled to take on her brother’s mission because she’s always looked up to him, and things that by doing so, she can become strong just like him and finish what he’s started, that in doing so, he’ll be proud of her and see her as his equal.

            -She thinks she’s able to do it because she’s his twin; they share blood(this is all based on what she believes about the Savior, which is not necessarily the truth.)

            …So, how’s that?

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          • Ah, see, the stakes grow stronger already. She feels for her best friend almost like a sibling, no? Taken in by her family, thick as blood. But her friend is in danger, directly because of her. She has to do something to prevent this, but what? (Stake raised the first time). If only she strong like her brother. Her poor, missing brother. He would be able to protect them…wouldn’t he? But no…he couldn’t even protect himself. All must be doomed! (Stake raised the second time) That doesn’t mean her brother was all wrong, though. Maybe the prophecy of the savior was true. Maybe that child born under that moon and those stars, on that night, really was meant to wield great power, a sword of destiny…but *two* children were born that night. The sword, then. She must claim the sword to claim the strength she’ll need to protect her chosen family…and succeed where her family failed (parents dead, brother presumed so, stakes raised third time). Ah, but the rub…to get the power, she needs the sword. To take the sword is to become the savior. To become the savior…is to put herself in a position she doesnt even know she is worthy for. (Stake raised the final time) Will she do it? Or will she surrender hope?

            Seem a bit stronger now? 🙂

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  3. Thanks for the shout out of my blog post! 🙂

    For what it’s worth, it sounds like you ARE on the right track with your stakes. 🙂 You definitely have goals that will drag her deeper into the situation. Good luck!

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