May 25, 2015

Raising the Stakes for Your Characters

Despite having written several novels, I've continued to have problems plotting my stories.  The challenges I set for my characters often seem too easy for them, and there are often times where the stakes aren't that high.  This has caused characters to walk away from a potential problem (since there was no compelling reason for them to solve it) or to easily overcome the problem because I "let them see it coming" and they prepared successfully for it.

I've been making a conscious effort lately to learn more about plotting, conflict, tension, and raising the stakes on characters.

For that reason, I borrowed from Kindle Unlimited the book Story Stakes: Your #1 Writing Skills Strategy to Transform Readers into Raving Fans & Keep Them Turning the Pages of Your Screenplay or Novel by H.R. D'Costa, the author suggests that there are 11 ways you can raise the stakes on your character:
  1. General Protection:  Put your character in a position where their actions protect a group of people, a community, a city, etc.  The hero's failure will cause others to suffer, which will spur the character on past a point where they might have given up in the past.
  2. Demise (of Someone Close to the Character):  Someone important to the character, such as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child, is in danger and will die (or suffer a similarly devastating outcome) if the hero can't save them.
  3. Livelihood:  If the character doesn't succeed at what he or she has undertaken, they'll be unable to make a living.  This usually works best if the hero worked hard to get the job, had to suffer disapproval to get it, it's a rare and coveted job, it's important to "who they are", or losing the job will ruin their chances of getting other jobs.  Losing the job should also endanger the hero's ability so support someone important.
  4. Freedom:  The character's failure will put his freedom, or that of someone he cares about, in jeopardy.  This doesn't have to be jail.  It can mean being left in an undesirable place they can't leave, being in a relationship that makes them unhappy, etc.
  5. Reputation:  The character's failure will destroy his own reputation or that of someone important to him.  This works best when tied to other stakes, such as livelihood or freedom.
  6. Sanity:  The character's failure will cause the loss of sanity for himself or someone dear.
  7. Access to a Person, Place, or Thing:  The character's failure will result in a loss of access to something important, such as child, a sibling, or a loved one.
  8. Regret:  The character's failure will lose an important opportunity.  For example, a character whose actions or decisions cause a problem in the past might like to have a second chance.  In the story, they're given a second chance in a similar situation and have the opportunity to get things right this time.
  9. Suffering and Sacrifice:  Suffering that a character endures to get to her goal is only worth it if they win, otherwise the suffering was in vain.  Similarly, if a character sacrifices something important, gives up an easy way out of a bad predicament, or someone close to her makes a sacrifice, this is only worth it if she succeeds.  In essence, you're showing the price that the character (and those who helped her) paid for her success.
  10. Justice:  We see the antagonist do some really terrible things, whether against the protagonist or some other character.  If the hero fails, the bad guys get away with their crimes.  If the hero wins, justice is served and the bad guys pay for what they've done.  How effective the Justice stake is depends on how bad the villain's crime was, and how much time passes before the villain is brought to justice.  A really terrible crime committed at the start of the story will lose much of its impact if justice isn't served until the end.  It's also important that, relatively speaking, what the hero has to do to bring the villain to justice isn't as bad as the villain's crime.
  11. Hero Happiness:  The hero's happiness is tied to achieving the story goal.  If he wins, he'll be happy.  If he loses, he'll feel like his life is over.  The key here is that the thing the character wants must be very specific, such that only this particular goal will work.  If he wants love, for example, anyone might provide that.  But if he wants the love of a particular woman because she has the qualities that he or his life do not have, finding love elsewhere won't do.  If the hero's goal is money, it has to be clear that he wants the money because of what it means to him, what it will do for him, and how it will help him than for the money itself.  Wanting money to save the family farm, get a child through college, or save the lives of homeless people works.  Wanting money so he can quit his job and spend his days drinking on the beach, isn't going to thrill readers.
Later in the book, D'Costa shares ways to alter the emotional impact of the stakes created by the above methods.  One of these is to create an object that many characters want (called a "MacGuffin").

The author also discusses how to build a "Story Stakes Matrix" which helps you to keep raising the stakes, avoid an anticlimactic ending, and improve the appeal of the story to readers.  The book concludes with an "action plan" for laying out the plot and the stakes.

It's definitely worth a read if you experience the same issue I do.

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