Most of us want to write gripping fiction. We want our readers to forego food and drink, to fight off sleep, even to resist calls of nature in order to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next. One way to ratchet up the tension for your readers is to keep raising the stakes for your characters. The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to do this.
Stakes are what may be gain or lost. Your characters have wants, goals, desires, or simply needs that can be classified as stakes. It should not be clear -- it really needs to be in some doubt -- as to whether or not your character will achieve these goals.
You may argue that the outcome is not in doubt for all genres. In many romances, the hero and the heroine will, by definition, get together by the end of the story. Readers of any experience know this. However, even though your readers know that Hero and Heroine are going to miraculously overcome their difficulties and live happily ever after, Hero or Heroine are unaware of this foregone conclusion. They, stuck inside the pages, can't see what's coming. So even if your readers know that all will end well, they can identify with your characters, and derive their suspense vicariously.
So, you need to come up with things that matter to your readers and your characters. Let's say that your main character is Andrew. Here are a few stakes that could matter to Andrew:
These stakes will matter to your characters if you, while writing your story, make them matter to your characters. They also help define your characters; your characters, in turn, will help define the stakes that matter to them. If Andrew is thin then he probably won't want to lose ten pounds and you can eliminate that stake from your list -- unless he's trying to make a particular wrestling class.
Entertaining is often in the eye of the beholder; what thrills one reader may bore another. In some respects this is determined by genre; for example, the stake "winning the football game" may not generate much empathy in the readers of romances. Then, again, if you write it right, it just might -- it all depends!
So, entertaining can be defined many ways. Perhaps you are trying to increase suspense; this can be done by endangering your main character or those he loves. Perhaps "entertaining" involves romance, avoiding embarrassment, is a matter of attaining or retaining power, or is simply odd or weird. My co-author and I open one scene with a character, Dirke, looking around the room at all the men, wondering which one she should seduce to get her pregnant -- a pregnancy which she needs for political reasons. This seemed -- at least to us, our test readers and our agent - intriguing, entertaining, and suspenseful.
Your characters' stakes may be more mundane. In fact, I think it's fun to include stakes that are trivial but a little peculiar -- stakes that readers experience but rarely read about -- such as trying to find the cap to the gas tank that was accidentally lost because your main character forgot to put it back on while filling up the tank at a gas station (obviously an older car). You can increase the significance of these stakes. For example, your protagonist may want to lose the ten pounds in order to take advantage of a modeling opportunity -- or needs to find the gas cap because the character's father will scold her for her scatterbrained ways.
Given the stakes that will consume your character, which has the least impact and which has the greatest? In a way this decision is personal/artistic/subjective -- all nice words for arbitrary, for both you as author and even in some sense for the characters, because we all have different priorities and these priorities shift with time. My own particular choice would be to decide that training the dog to use the pet door has the least impact while keeping the local plant from blowing up and killing everyone has the most.
You may want to introduce the lower-impact stakes first. These help your readers get to know your main characters, especially if they are quirky. Tension increases as the stakes increase. On the other hand, if Andrew knows that the local chemical plant is about to blow up, it can make for a very exciting beginning.
Resolving the stakes in an entertaining manner is what makes your stories great; what makes your readers keep turning pages; what makes your readers search bookshelves hoping for more books by you. How you go about resolving them is a matter for other columns, so I won't go into that here. However, I will mention a few principles here.
All of them have to be resolved, the small as well as the great. Anything left hanging and unresolved is sloppy. Sometimes authors will leave a few things unresolved on purpose because they're planning a series. This may not please your readers (unless these unresolved items go unnoticed) but at least it's better than you, the author, leaving a plot hole unintentionally.
Not all stakes have to be resolved positively. For example, in the first two Harry Potter books, Gryffindor, Harry Potter's house, does not win the Quidditch championship, partly because he had other priorities, such as fighting the Dark Lord and saving the lives of other characters. It is only in book three that Gryffindor wins, and in this case the stakes have been raised because it is the team captain's last year at the school and he has never won (partly due to Harry Potter's injuries).
Some stakes may be resolved immediately. Andrew is hungry. Andrew eats a sandwich and so this is resolved before it gets serious.
A stake may be resolved only to be replaced with another, more urgent stake. Jane Austen's Emma has a brilliant example of this. Austen resolves the mystery and intrigue involving one character, Jane Fairfax. And just as we readers think we can exhale and relax, Austen replaces it with another dilemma that threatens the lifelong happiness of Emma, the protagonist.
Often authors will use a sort of nesting technique, in which the stakes are introduced in an ascending order -- they keep getting raised -- and they are resolved in a descending order. To use some of Andrew's stakes above, a story might be arranged thus:
B1. The local chemical plant is in danger of exploding. Andrew works to prevent it
B2. The plant explodes (not a happy ending, but perhaps Andrew got out all the people)
A2. Rex, terrified by the noise, finally uses the pet door
It is wonderful when the stakes interact with each other, bringing the disparate threads of your story together. In this example above stake B has an unintended but positive impact on stake A. In other stories, it will be impossible for two stakes to have a happy ending -- not without some interesting creativity on the part of the author (but that's what we're there for).
In the end, your story will have many stakes, resolved happily or not. The order in which you put them and how you go about resolving them is a large part of what makes your story.
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Victoria Grossack studied Creative Writing and English Literature at
Dartmouth College, and has published stories and articles in such
publications as Contingencies, Women's World and I Love Cats. She is the author of Crafting Fabulous Fiction, a step-by-step guide to developing and polishing novels and short stories that includes many of her beloved columns. With Alice Underwood, she co-authors the Tapestry of Bronze series (including Jocasta, Mother-Wife of Oedipus; The Children of Tantalus; and Antigone & Creon), based on Greek myths and set in the late Bronze Age. Her independent novels include The Highbury Murders, in which she does her best to channel the spirits and styles of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and Academic Assassination (A Zofia Martin Mystery). Victoria is married with kids, and (though American) spends much of her time in Europe. Her
hobbies include gardening, hiking, bird-watching and tutoring
mathematics. Visit her website at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com, or
contact her at tapestry (at) tapestryofbronze (dot) com.
Want to learn more about crafting fabulous fiction? Get one-on-one guidance with Victoria Grossack's personal writing class; find out more at http://www.tapestryofbronze.com/VictoriasWritingClasses.html.