Stakes are part of the holy trinity of writing (goals-conflicts-stakes), and because if that, a lot of the advice given is on raising them as high as possible. Don't get me wrong, this is good advice, but it dawned on me recently that quieter stakes might actually be easier to write.
Big, end-of-the-world stakes are exciting and huge and wonderful, but they happen to everyone in that world, not just the protagonist.
Small, my-life-is-going-to-change stakes are personal and wonderful, and they often happen just to the protagonist.
From a purely structure standpoint, personal stakes + personal goals = personal action, and that's what plot is all about. If the risk is personal, the character's motivations are much clearer and it's easier to determine what they'll do and why. It can also be easier to figure out how to make those goals harder to achieve.
(Here's more on getting to the heart of your story)
Let's try a quick exercise. Plot out the major turning points of this premise:
A man learns an asteroid will hit Earth in three weeks and prepares himself for the end of the world.Different types of plots probably popped into your head. Maybe one writer sees this as an action-packed adventure about getting to the only place that might offer safety, another sees it as an exploration of coming to terms with one's mortality, while another might write it as a personal journey to reunited with a lost love before it's too late.
Before you can plot it, you have to figure out what kind of story it's going to be.
(Here's more on making readers care about the story)
Let's plot out a quieter premise:
A terminally-ill man learns he has six months to live and sets out to find the son he abandoned.I'm guessing the plot ideas came quicker this time, and a more specific story idea developed. Part of the reason is that the goal and stakes are much clearer than the end of the world. We can imagine the steps needed for this man to find his son and what the outcome of that reunion might be like. It's likely that the reunion is the climax of the novel, or maybe the third act disaster. The pieces fall into place a bit better because the stakes are personal.
(Here's more on raising the stakes by narrowing the focus)
We could always mix the two:
A man learns an asteroid will destroy Earth in three weeks and sets out to find the son he abandoned.More personal with the son, but it lacks the heart-tug the terminally-ill man has. Do you care if he finds his son? The world is ending so what does it really matter now?
Now, I'm not saying this can't be an awesome book just because it has high stakes. I'd be more likely to write the end-of-the-world one than the terminally-ill man one, because I like larger-than-life stories. But I wouldn't be able to plot it well until I found the personal story within that higher-stakes idea.
And that's the point. That's why I (and many other writers) stress how important it is for stakes to be personal--people react differently to personal strife, both from a character and a reader perspective.
Unsure if your stakes are personal enough? Ask yourself:
- How many other people will be affected if the "big bad thing" occurs?
- How will the character's life change if whatever is at stake happens?
- What specific actions can the protagonist take to avoid these stakes that are different from other people?
- If the protagonist does nothing, what happens?
- Can any character follow this same path and get the same outcome?
Not every story is going to require deep, soul-wrenching, personal stakes, but it doesn't hurt to consider what the protagonist is risking versus the average person. Even in an action-focused thriller with lots of people at risk, there's usually one character who has more to lose than anyone else, and that's usually the protagonist.
Find what's personally at risk for your protagonist and your plot will be easier to write.
How personal are the stakes in your current novel?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound