Career Authors

Upping the Stakes: Why Would You Do That?

I promise you’ll be asked at your next event: “Are your books plot driven or character driven?” It’s very hip to say character, but you know what? I’m a plot girl. So think about that question. In assessing where your plot will go, do you ask: why do my stories develop the way they do? And here’s an answer: motivation.

We’ve all had the moment, especially if you’re writing a mystery or thriller or novel of suspense, when your main character comes across a mysterious frightening scary unusual shocking thing. The next thing that happens? They decide to get involved. Really? Why?

How many times, when reading a book like that, do we as readers say: why didn’t they just call the police? Often it’s so you the author can make it a story.

But think about it another way.

Every character wants something. Question is, how far will they go to get it? That’s what a compelling story is all about. So how do you do that for your characters? Plot and character must be inextricably connected—that’s when believable things happen.

Match motivation to action

If you’re writing a story where the motivations don’t match the action, that will sink your book like a bad joke.

Let’s say you have a character who has a dream about a fire, and wakes up, quaking and afraid. Then that dream of the fire gives her some clue about the current problems in her life. Fine, but very convenient, don’t you think?

So let’s up the stakes. Let’s say your character is asleep, and the fire alarm in her house goes off. Oh no! She leaps out of bed, terrified, searching for fire, it’s very high pressure, and fast-paced, and you’re turning the pages fast as you can to see if she’s going to die in some hideous conflagration. And, as she is racing around, she has an idea about the bad guy. But then… The smoke detector has malfunctioned again, and it was a false alarm. Huh. That’s sort of false suspense, isn’t it? And your readers will not put up with much of that.

Up the stakes

Now let’s say the character is asleep, and the smoke alarm goes off, and she leaps up, and there is a fire! Just a little fire, but still. How did that happen? How will she put it out? Was it set on purpose? Or was it just one of those things? What will she do as a result? Will it happen again? If she calls 911, will law enforcement think she’s a nut? Is it the boy who cried fire? Or is it—action? Real action, and advancing the story?

You see how upping the stakes races the motivation of the character, right? It forces your protagonist to do something, rather than just participate in an artificial event to inject your book with a little thrill.

Sometimes as I’m writing, I say this mantra:

“Why have a false alarm if you could have a real fire?”

My grandson’s wisdom

When I was writing my 2014 novel, it was over the Fourth of July, and my then nine-year-old grandson was visiting. I was under a crazy crushing deadline, and working all hours. But my grandson came to the room, so sweet, and said, “Grammy, what are you doing? I am very interested in what you’re writing.” How could I resist a chat with an opening like that?

I paused for a moment, though, because at that moment I was deciding whether a character in my book would die. Do you explain that to a nine-year-old?

But, I figured, might as well tell him the truth. So I said, “Well sweetheart, I’m trying to decide whether a character should get killed.”

His turn to pause. Then he said, “Is she a good person, Grammy? Good people should not die.”

I told him that was a great question. And a big Grammy moment. “Yes, she’s good,” I said. Carefully. “But good people do die, you know?”

He nodded. “Well, maybe, “ he said, “she should have a narrow escape.”

I told him yes, that was a good thought, too. “But sometimes I think a narrow escape is a cheap shot,” I explained. “Because nothing really happens, right? It’s all fake suspense.”

And he seemed to understand, because he thought about it for a moment, as intensely serious as only a nine-year-old can be. “Well,” he said, “maybe she should have to give something up to escape from the bad guy.”

I looked at him, slack-jawed I must say, because of course! I had not raised the stakes enough. When I added that motivation, that critical (and real) decision about to give up what she wanted in order to stay alive, that made the story interesting. That gave her the ultimate motivation.

What do they want?

So as you are growing your world, ask yourself not only about plot and character, but about motivation. About stakes. About why the character cares about what happens, and what the results will be when they decide. What do they want?

How does that apply to your work in progress? Chat with us on Facebook.

(And my grandson is available for consultations.)

Now: get writing!