Helen (heleninwales) wrote,

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Raising the stakes

Having typed them up for rasfc, I'm going to also put my summary of Chapter 3 of Donald Maass's book Writing the Breakout Novel here. I've put my own comments in italics.

Maass begins by saying, "If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes."

He admits this is a hoary old chestnut of a piece of advice but then says:

"Why, then, do so few fiction writers put this principle into effective practice?"

He suggests that, with your current novel in mind, you ask yourself the following question: "Can you point to the exact pages in which the stakes escalate, locking your protagonist into his course of action with less hope of success than before?"

The answer, with regard to my fantasy whodunit, is, "Yes." Unfortunately it's in Chapter 11. :-( A similar escalation of the stakes happens in the WIR, but this time it's in Chapter 4. This has to be better!

To determine whether the stakes are high or not, Maass suggests that you consider what would happen if the protag does not succeed. What would be lost?

"Their life," is not, Maass suggests necessarily a good answer. Beginning writers love to put their characters' lives in danger. "What higher stakes can there be?" someone suggested to him. But he points out that running for one's life is commonplace. Turn on the TV and people are doing it all the time. But, there are plenty of novels where characters are on the run and the reader is rooting for them all the way. Why? You have to care about the *character*.

Key point one (according to Maass) is that, "Life-and-death stakes are meaningless unless they are tied to underlying human worth."

Next problem, how to create High Human Worth!

For anyone's life to be worth saving (in fiction), it needs added value. According to Maass:

* nothing is more compelling than high principles and codes of personal conduct.

* we may cheer when the hero defeats the villain, but we are moved far more deeply when that hero eschews an easy choice and honors his code.

* honesty, integrity, loyalty, kindness, bravery, respect, trust and love of one's fellow man are all measure of high human worth.

These are the keys to making life-and death stakes count -- or any lesser stakes for that matter.

No people die in the WIR. It's just not that kind of story and it's supposed to be funny. However, the community will die if their campaign to save the mountain fails. Thus the stakes are raised in Chapter 4-5 rather than stated baldly in Chapter 1 because the reader needs to get to know the people and place first. Maass deals with this in the Chapter on plot with the concept he calls Bridging Conflict, ie small problems and crises to keep the novel moving until the main problem is revealed in its full horror.

Maass also distinguishes between public stakes and private stakes. Public stakes are the things that society as a whole will lose: the end of civilisation as we know it, everyone in the city/space station will perish if not evacuated in time, more women will die as the serial killer stalks the streets, etc. etc.

Public Stakes

Here he suggests that you start with a grain of truth in the premise, then elaborate on that. Detail can make the essentially ridiculous scenario seem plausible real.

What, however, if you are writing a much smaller scale story? How do you manage to get high public stakes in if you're writing a touching tale of loss and betrayal within a family?

What you *don't* do, Maass insists, is graft on some ludicrous thriller- type plot strand.[*] Instead, you make your story very detailed, very specific and thus, by examining one situation in particular, you end up representing the quintessential essence of such situations everywhere. You write a story about *this* loss and subsequent betrayal and thus anyone who has known a similar situation will relate to it.

I feel he's definitely right here. I've often heard people reviewing a story about, for example, a young woman growing up as an immigrant in London and saying how much it reminded them of the isolation they felt in their own youth.

* for a situation to feel broadly representative, it must be highly specific

* one of the qualities of a highly memorable novel is that it takes us somewhere else

* catch the mood of the times. Be aware of current concerns.

Private stakes

Maass says that it's easy to create a need, a yearning or goal that matters to the protag; what is more difficult is to make it also matter to the reader.

* if the problems and yearnings of your characters matter to you, they will matter to the reader.

* the character's stakes will seem strong only to the extent that the character is sympathetic.

* when characters are strong and appealing, portrayed warmly with intimate candour and stakes are high, reader interest will be high too.

Raising the stakes

* How could things get worse?

* What is the worst possible moment for them to get worse?

* You must make your characters suffer.

I feel a bit wary about that part of Maass's advice. I personally feel that the bit about making characters suffer can be overdone, especially in fantasy. It took me over a year to read Mary Gentle's Ash because there was too much suffering for my taste. Or at least I could only take it in small doses and had to keep breaking off from the story. But if not carried to extremes, it does work well, even for a wimpish reader like me. Suffering doesn't, of course, have to be physical.

Finally I just wanted to say that that's a really condensed version of what Maass has to say. Partly because it's summarised, it might seem rather like stating the obvious. In the book he explains things in more detail and with lots of contemporary examples. But sometimes the obvious has to be stated and, as a summary of all the writing advice on what a good novel should have, it's nice to have it in a compact and easily readable form. It's a book I'm sure I'll be referring to at the revision stage of every novel I write henceforth.

[1] Personally I felt this was a mistake Annie Proulx made in the otherwise excellent The Shipping News. Towards the end there are some melodramatic elements involving a body and the drowning of an important character that really felt out of kilter with the subtlety of the rest of the novel.
Tags: breaking out, writing reflection

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