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Raising the Stakes

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Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

Cliffs at Étretat by Gustave Courbet via Wikimedia Commons

With National Novel Writing Month looming (frequently known as NaNoWriMo), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about outlining.  Last year, I participated in NaNoWriMo without an outline, and the results were less than stellar.  Having an outline helps me write the nitty gritty of the story itself more quickly and more cleanly.

There are all kinds of resources out there to help you outline, but what matters most is what you put inside the outline.  One of the most important things holding your plot together will be the stakes and the ensuing tension those stakes develop.  The stakes for the same situation will be completely different depending on your character.  All of the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice had a strong stake in finding good marriages – as soon as their father passed on, they would be penniless and basically homeless if they didn’t have a (good) husband.  On the other hand, Jem in Rachel Ward’s Numbers had no such stake in a good marriage; in fact, I can imagine her scoffing at even the idea of getting married.  The stakes are completely different based on your characters and their objectives.

According to former literary agent Mary Kole, author of Writing Irresistible Kidlit, there are two different types of stakes, public stakes and private stakes.  Private stakes impact your character’s core identity.  Your main character may become completely torn up when her family loyalty is put on the line and she is unable to fulfill her role as the protector of her family (think Katniss in Hunger Games, contemplating her death and what will happen to her family if she dies).  Public stakes, on the other hand, bring in the larger world and the character’s relationship with it.  If the Bennet girls in Pride and Prejudice don’t get married, and get married to the right kind of men, they will be pitied as burdens on the community in addition to being penniless.

Many of the best kinds of stakes are a mixture of public stakes (relationship with the world) and private stakes (personal identity).  In Numbers, if Jem doesn’t share her secret, she may not be able to unravel the mystery in time to save Spider; however, if she does share her secret, people may not believe her, causing further consequences.

It’s important to ratchet up the stakes little by little as we go along, but we also have to take care not to go too far overboard.  Too far overboard can make us move into the realm of melodrama.  Melodrama happens when the characters’ emotions run too high to match their objectives.  If Johnny scratched his hand on a rock, he’s probably going to be irritated but not irate.  If the emotions run too high to match what’s happening, we may lead readers into farce.  Sounding like a sketch on SNL by accident is much worse than sounding like one on purpose.

What are our takeaways?

  • Ratchet up the stakes little by little
  • Include a mixture of public and private stakes
  • Don’t be melodramatic

What else would you add about raising the stakes?  How do you include stakes when you’re outlining?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

14 responses

  1. Very cool. I’d never heard of public and private stakes. Another great resource is “Outlining Your Novel” by KM Weiland.

  2. I know what I will be writing about for Nanowrimo but I want to let it flow as that is what they say not to have written any of it yet and use December to edit

    • There’s definitely a happy medium there somewhere between discovering as you write and outlining down to the very last word. I still haven’t figured out what works best for me. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. To me, including a structure with mounting stakes, both internal and external, was one of the greatest benefits of having a detailed outline (for my current WIP). I was able to mark out that “this” should happen by this point and “that” should happen before such and such. Plus, the outline was pivotal for planting the clues and foreshadowing I needed for the story. It would have been messier to figure those things out after the story was finished.

    But that technique wouldn’t work for everyone, and some writers have a knack for intuitively knowing what goes here or there without having to see it in an outline first.

    • A proper outline definitely makes the writing cleaner. I also find that I write much faster when I have an outline because I have a definite direction that I’m taking the scene.

  4. This was really interesting– I’d not read about it in this way before.

  5. I enjoyed your post, thank you. I write mystery novels and could never get along without an outline. I’ve read of authors who don’t use outlines, but for me it would be impossible to relax with the narrative unless I had a detailed map of where to go next.

    • Writing seems so much more seamless with an outline — especially when there are complex subplots and foreshadowing moments that need to be placed in certain spots. The outlines definitely come in handy.

  6. I totally agree, Christi, that stakes are all important, although they may not come fully baked in a first draft or outline. After writing early versions of my current project, I realized that my main character’s personal stakes weren’t enough to carry an action-adventure novel, so I wove in bigger, public stakes: a state secret in the form of a devastating weapon that only my main character knows about and can stop from being used against innocent victims. It’s a little over the top, but it all depends on the kind of story you’re writing. As an aside, I’m particularly impressed by writers would can create amazing tension and interest from “quiet” or more personal stakes. Your example of Pride and Prejudice is a great one!

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