Hello, writers. Happy Harry Potter's birthday!
So last week we talked a little bit about raising stakes. I thought I'd done a diary on it recently, but a search shows I haven't, not in several years. My understanding of the concept is changing, so I'd like to take another look at it.
The stakes are what will happen to your protagonist-- and to the people and things your protagonist values-- if s/he fails in his/her mission. They're the reason your protagonist can't just walk away. (If your protagonist can just walk away, that's a plothole.)
For the most part, in today's fiction and narrative non-fiction, the stakes should be high and they should get higher.
As I've said before, The Hunger Games is a study in stakes-raising. The protagonist, Katniss, starts out making sacrifices to protect her sister. As the story progresses, everyone is in danger, and as Katniss comes to know and care about more people, the stakes are raised because she has more people to lose. The story is flawed in that Katniss for the most part fails to protag-- except at rare moments, she merely reacts to circumstances, and fails to actually resist the corrupt government. The success of the books makes it clear that that flaw doesn't matter as much as the expert stakes-raising.
Stakes aren't just death or the end of the world, though. I'm slowly learning this. Last month I had lunch with my agent in New York, a charming ritual of the publishing world for which Emmet says I should have worn a hat.
We talked about our current, post-Jinx project, and then, for some reason, I started telling her about another fantasy I was working on, one about a boy in DC, that is still just notes and an idea. I watched her face as I told her the plot. She was smiling, which was encouraging. Just at the point that I thought of as the zenith of my stakes-raising, her smile became rather fixed.
“It seemed like you lost interest right at the part where he discovers the evil senator's plot to start a war,” I said.
“Yes. That's where it stopped being about his family and started being just politics.”
“But he has to prevent a war--” I protested.
“But the thing with his mother was more interesting.”
Whoa. Major revelation.
Stakes aren't just death and saving the world. Stakes are personal, and they're personal because of our emotional connection to the protagonist and the other characters.Since it's his birthday, let's look at Harry Potter. *Spoiler alert*
In the first chapter of book 1, we don't even meet Harry. We just see hints of a magical world, humorously presented even though, as we learn later, there's just been a tragic murder. It was smart of JKR not to lead with the tragic murder. It's not tragic to us, after all. We don't know the victims. We're playing along because the world sounds amusing, and the Dursleys sound insufferable. We love to hate 'em.
Then we meet Harry. Stakes raised. A child is at the mercy of these dreadful people. His life may not be in danger, but his well-being is, and we're hardwired to react to that. We connect to Harry because he's a child in danger. Later, as we meet other characters, we connect to them. We now care if something bad happens to them. And as the series progresses, more and more bad things happen to the characters we care about the most. I'm willing to bet that the offstage deaths *spoiler alert* of Lupin and Tonks in book 7 caused more emotional distress than the very onstage death of Cedric Diggory in book 4. We had more invested in Lupin and Tonks.
The key to stakes-raising is that we have to care about the person or thing that's threatened.So it's a two-step process. First, there has to be a reason for us to care about the protagonist or the other characters involved. Then, the stakes have to be large to the character.
(Harry's parents' deaths never seem as emotionally wrenching as the author intends them to be, because not only did we never get to know these people... neither did Harry.)
What about genres that don't generally trade in life-and-death, like romance?
Personally, I've never been able to make it all the way through a contemporary romance novel. I just find them a bit boring. In a romance, the stakes are usually will-she-get-the-guy-or-won't-she, and we strongly suspect she will. To me, this works as a subplot but isn't enough to carry a plot.
However, I sometimes enjoy Regency romances. It's still will-she-get-the-guy-or-won't-she. But in a time and place when even upper-class women had few rights and little usable education, the stakes are higher. The protagonist may face a miserable existence if she doesn't get the guy.
So. Stakes = someone we care about + a threat to something they care about. Does not have to be life or death. Does not have to be the end of the world. Does have to be hugely important to the character.
By the way, stakes-raising isn't essential to all fiction. A highly successful example of low-stakes fiction that comes to mind is pretty much anything by Alexander McCall Smith, but most particularly his Botswana books. There is a place for this sort of thing. But in general, in most genres, you need to raise the stakes to keep the reader turning pages.
Rewrite the scene below so as to raise the stakes.
The bar-room at the Startled Duck smelled of beer, stale cheese, and worse things. The Callow Youth made his [or her] way gingerly across the sawdust-covered floor, thinking s/he would clean his/her boots later.(When I say rewrite, I mean, as usual, “change as much as you want”.)
The innkeeper looked up from the dirty tankard he was polishing with a dirty rag. “Help ya?”
“I'm looking for a woman,” said the Callow Youth.
“Wish ya all kinds of luck with that,” said the innkeeper, and went back to his polishing.
“A specific woman,” said the CY. “She was supposed to meet me here. She's about six feet tall, and she has spiked blue hair and a strong southern Togwogmagog accent.”
“Haven't seen her,” said the innkeeper. “Sorry.”
“Okay. That's cool. Thanks,” said the CY, and managed to make his/her way out without getting his/her pocket picked.
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