The Bigger the Stakes, The Bigger the Fall

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

I was catching up on my blog reading the other day when I read an insightful post by Nathan Bransford on story stakes – The More the Character Puts in a Bucket, the More There Is to Spill. Admittedly, my first thought when I read the title was “no kidding.” But I’m accustomed to finding treasures among Bransford’s posts so I read on. 

And, yes, I discovered another insight. Too often, our characters are skipping along, having an amazing day when disaster strikes. We expect readers to empathize with our characters because disaster is bad. But if we want to keep our readers engaged, we need to do better. There’s no taking the easy way. 

Bransford’s point was that if your character has already put a ton of effort into something, and then it goes wrong? That’s huge. We’ve all been there and so have our readers. 

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that your character is a seamstress who has been making a princess-worthy wedding dress for her daughter. Her fingers hurt. She has eye strain. And she’s short on sleep, but three days before the wedding she is ready for the final fitting. That’s when her daughter tells her that she’s calling off the wedding. 

It sounds like the set up for a Gen X rom com, doesn’t it? Mom has serious investment in this dress which has one big day to shine. Now her efforts may never been seen. That’s going to create a lot more tension than if the character was having a lovely cuppa in her garden when she got a phone call that the wedding was off. 

What if your story was a mystery? Your character is a freelancer (how ever did I think of that?) and also a dog walker because she has bills to pay. Recently someone started a dog walking club. Get out and get fit and have fun with your pooch! This is really eating into your character’s ability to keep the lights on. She’s trying to figure out how to get her customers back when she finds the woman who organized the dog walking club dead in the park where everyone, including her and her few remaining dogs, walks. In addition to the trauma of finding the body, now she must find the killer to prove that she didn’t do it. 
Tipping over the character’s plans is a great way to create a disaster that is a natural fit for your story. If you can do that, it won’t feel contrived and it will give your character a lot to lose if things don’t get straightened out. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to make some changes to my WIP. 


Sue Bradford Edwards' is the author of 40 books for young readers.  
  • To find out more about her writing, visit her site and blog, One Writer's Journey.  
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She is also the instructor for 3 WOW classes which begin again on September 4, 2023.  She teaches:


Angela Mackintosh said...

I love the dog walking story premise! That would make an amazing short story. I hope you write it, Sue! :)

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I'll have to give that some thought, Ang. My mystery group was actually talking about short stories and using them to promote a WIP. That said, I don't know that it would work for my WIP.

Okay, I take it back. Apparently the first dog walking business launched in 1960 or 1962 depending on your source. My book is set in 1969.

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