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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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What Makes Love Triangles So Compelling?

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Love Triangles - Dante's Inferno - Novel Conclusions - writing blog

Gianciotto Discovers Paolo and Francesca (Dante’s Inferno) – via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been pretty absent from the blogosphere recently as I’ve been down for the count with that cold/flu thing that’s been going around.  If you get it, hit that Vitamin C, stat!  Anyhow, in honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, we’re going to chat about some famous love triangles in literature.  What makes them so compelling?  And why do they seem to be in every other story?

If you take a little tour through past and current popular fiction, love triangles abound like wizards at Hogwarts.  Before all the tween girls this side of Friday were oohing and aahing over Jacob, Bella, and Edward (Go Team Jacob!  Yes, I confess I did read the books…), some pretty justifiably famous love triangles reigned in literature, with a few things in common.

Who can forget Darcy, Elizabeth, and Wickham?  In Pride and Prejudice, while we’re on Elizabeth’s side the whole time, we watch Darcy and Wickham alternately lose and win her favor.  In Gone with the Wind, we’re pulling for Rhett the whole time as Scarlett pines after a guy named Ashley (Scarlett, honey, you should’ve known he wasn’t the one as soon as you heard his girly name.  Sigh.).  Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence gives us a heart-wrenching love triangle with a much sadder ending.  When Newland falls in love with his fiancée May’s married, scandalous cousin Ellen in the 1870s, bad times ensue.  You can go further back to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and even the Arthurian legends of Guinevere and Lancelot falling in love behind Arthur’s back.

We could go on and on here, but what makes these love triangles work?  These love triangles compel us to turn page after page because the emotions feel real and immediate.  It doesn’t hurt that love triangles naturally create tension, an essential ingredient for plot.  When love triangles are done well, when the author upholds the emotional integrity of the story, we as readers can’t put the book down.

Elizabeth Bennet’s original hatred of Darcy and her infatuation with Wickham were as real to us as later her slowly dawning love for Darcy and her disgust for Wickham feel real.  We live through these events as Elizabeth does because Austen upholds the emotional integrity of the story.  She doesn’t step outside the fourth wall to preach at us or to tell us what Elizabeth or Darcy or any of the characters ought to think.  She lets the characters lead the story, rather than letting the story lead the characters.  And it doesn’t hurt that Darcy is pretty hot and pretty rich…

Which love triangles do you love?  Which love triangles stand out to you in fiction?

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