Margie Lawson

Changing your Writing World

The Stakes Have Never Been Higher

Travel bans, social distancing, lost hugs, work, communication. Hospitals overflow, and, first-liners are overwhelmed and overworked.

High fevers.

Intubation.

Death.

If we did not know better, the last couple of years could be the stuff of a big-screen blockbuster. A movie some may not believe. But all too real, we worry. We struggle. We celebrate victories and cry for the losses. We care.

We care because the stakes are high. Losing is not an option.

However, while most recognize the importance of life’s stakes—Covid-19  or otherwise—in writing, often intense focus on character, goal, motivation never gives way to delving deep enough into story stakes.

No doubt character and goal are fundamentals but imagine Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind with Scarlett only wanting Ashely. Or Richard Kimble (The Fugitive) only searching for one-armed man. What if in Maggie Stiefvater’s Scorpio Races, Puck never decides to ride a “normal” pony in a race of deathly beasts?

While love, justice, family are strong motivators, if we merely rely on these initial desires, we miss the opportunity to create powerful emotional experience that keeps readers caring. 

According to James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, “Who cares is the fundamental question novelists must repeat over and over as they write.” If the character has nothing to lose throughout his journey, the writer risks reader care.

Consider: A writer wants to write about a character who wants an ice-cream cone on a hot August day.

While her goal and motivation is apparent—ice cream and heat—we lack character. Knowing this, she creates an eight-year-old boy with red hair, freckles. To add more depth and tension, she gives him a sun allergy and puts him in Tampa, Florida.

With the character, goal, motivation, and potential for the tension, she may feel ready to write. However,  few readers would care enough to invest in a two-hundred-fifty pages read.

So she takes the time to make things harder for our sun-allergic cherub. She creates obstacles.  

He must:

  • Get out of his house without being seen by his snarky sixteen-year-old babysitter.
  • Cross a busy street.
  • Walk down a treeless sidewalk at high noon.
  • Fight his fear of a scary house where the ice cream truck parks.

The writer has all the moving parts; character, goal, obstacles, but as Bell says, “Who Cares?”   

Likely no one. No one cares because if the boy gets the ice cream or doesn’t, his life, his world doesn’t change. Nothing changes because nothing is at stake.

Stakes are what makes a story matter, and finding your story stakes only takes supersizing your what-ifs?

Supersizing What-ifs

A common method, writers often use what-iffing to create character, story, obstacles, and yes even helps dive deep into story stakes. If you’ve never played the game, it is as simple as asking what if?

Let’s go back to our ice-cream story. On the surface this story seems silly, and perhaps it is. However, what would happen if we supersized our what-ifs?

One way to supersize is to create a list.

What-iffing tip:  Likely, the first items on the list will be bland because you’re priming your what-if brain. However, keep pushing, digging deeper, coming up with more what-iffing, and you’ll uncover the gem.  

  • What if the little boy is really poor?
    • I might care a bit more, but would I care enough?
  • What if he is so poor, he’s never had an ice cream?
    •  Sad, but enough?
  • What if a bully demands an ice-cream cone?
    • I care a bit more, but would I want this boy to stand up to this bully? Why couldn’t he just tell on the bully? Might be too many escapes from the stakes that the reader would want the boy to take.

Let’s keep thinking.

  • What if the little boy wants an ice cream because his mother is sick. Wait, what if she is dying?
    • Hmm, perhaps.
  • Oh wait, what if she is a single mother?
    • Interesting.
  • What if it just has been him and Mom. They are a team. 
  • What if Mom must work hard to keep them going?
  •  Oh, wait! What if every Sunday before getting sick, Mom and boy walked to the ice cream truck and bought a chocolate-dipped ice cream cone?
  • What if every time Mom said, “You know when you have a chocolate-dipped ice cream, all your problems go away.”?

And now the writer has a sun-allergic little boy, living in Tampa Florida with his single mother, who is dying. Moreover, he believes the only way to make all problems go away is a chocolate-dipped ice cream.  Now, we care.

We care because the stakes are life or death.

More, we know the stakes are not only mom’s physical death, but the boy also faces emotional death. If he does not get the ice cream and mom dies, he will have failed. He will die emotionally.

We can even consider Bell’s third aspect of death-stakes, professional death. As a child, a teammate, his job is to be a good son. Good sons save their mothers. If they don’t, they die professionally.  

By what-iffing the weak story idea, the writer  morphed it into a story to care about because, as James Scott Bell says, “The story stakes must be death.” 

Romance writers, humor writers, cozy writers, women’s fiction writers—do not panic. Stakes do not always have to include all three death stakes. Your character may never face physical death. The more at stake, the higher the tension. The higher the tension, the greater reader care.

While there are quite a few ways to dive deep into your story’s stakes—which is what Staking the Stakes is all about—why not give what-iffing a try?

Think about the who of character, the goal, the motivation, and then dive into what-iffing the death-stakes. Hey, and don’t be shy. Share your discoveries in the comments, and let’s keep the conversation rolling.

Teacher:

Rhay Christou

The two things Rhay Christou loves most in the world are teaching and creative writing. With her MFA in writing from Vermont College, she has had the great fortune to combine the two. Since graduating she has taught everything from creative writing to academic writing at the university level as well as writing workshops on the lovely island of Cyprus, in Greece and in the USA.

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