A Writing Exercise to Help You Raise the Stakes for Your Characters

Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Recently, I was critiquing a section of a WOW! student's romance novella, which is a very entertaining and well-written story, but something was lacking. After thinking about it for a while, I realized what it was--there was nothing really at stake. In genre novels, especially, the characters need to have something to lose, and the stakes have to be high, or your readers won't bother to get to the end--because they know how it will end--happily ever after. So the meat of the story needs to be the beginning and middle, where you introduce the characters and explore the stakes.

One way to keep readers interested in your story is to make sure that you have the stakes high enough. I've talked before about the "What if?" method of plotting a book, where you keep asking: What if? to create problems for your characters. For example: What if my character lost her dog? What if that dog was needed to win the big prize in the show? What if the prize money was the only way she would be able to pay her rent? and so on.

Asking what if and raising the stakes while you are answering the question each time will keep readers coming back to your book or maybe never putting it down.

Stakes don't always have to be dangerous either. It's not like you have to write the Hunger Games, where the stakes are literally Katniss's life or  the Harry Potter series, where all good will be destroyed by evil if Harry loses the battle with Voldemort. Look at the Wizard of Oz--if Dorothy doesn't defeat the witch, she can never go home. The stakes work in that story because most of us know: "There's no place like home." Therefore, we understand how important it is for Dorothy to get the broom and take it back to the Wizard, so she can get back to Auntie Em.

Look at your current manuscript and do this short exercise below, especially if you feel you have a muddy middle or something in your story is just not right. It will take you no time at all to answer these questions, but they are crucial:

1. What is the problem your character is trying to solve in this novel?
2. What are the obstacles in the way of your character solving this problem? (By the way, many times, one of the obstacles is the character himself and his flaw, as well as external obstacles.)
3. What is at risk if he does not solve the problem? What is at stake?

Having the answers to those questions and referring to them often will help you write a novel your readers will be talking about with all their friends after they read: "The End."

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. She teaches a novel course for WOW! each month, which includes 4 critiques of your work-in-progress. To check out more about her, go to http://www.margoldill.com. To check out her next class starting January 5, go to the WOW! classroom. 

Wizard of Oz photo above by JoshBerglund19 on Flickr.com


Renee Roberson said...

How very true! I have been working on one YA suspense novel for a few years where I may have this problem. We have a villain, we have a love interest, and we have stalking by the villain. But now that I think about it, I'm not sure what the stakes are? Acceptance? Love? Maybe one person's reputation. Thanks for the exercise--I have a feeling it will help me with my own muddy middle.

Margo Dill said...

Awesome--I'm so glad it helped. I think another way to think about it is...what will this character lose if he doesn't succeed?

In Hunger Games--her life

In Wizard of Oz--her home

Angela Mackintosh said...

So true, Margo! Great post and questions. I also love how you listed the stakes for Hunger Games and Wizard of Oz in your comment. I'm wondering what are some other stakes? I think there are both stakes of loss and gain--losing your life, gaining your freedom, etc. It would be interesting if we made a list sometime...maybe I can make one for an IG graphic.

Margo Dill said...

Hey Ang: IT is a great idea to make an IG graphic about this because we could also use it on Pinterest!

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