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I have been reading Donald Maass ‘Writing the Breakout Novel‘ and there is a whole chapter on raising the stakes in your writing. This lifts the novel from mundane to the memorable. Once you have established character, then you have to put them through the wringer and set the stakes high to keep the interest.
A great example of this type of writing is the last Dr Who series, written primarily by Russell T. Davies. I have never watched any of the other Dr Who shows but was immediately gripped by the Tenth Doctor and his adventures. I spun off into Torchwood, an equally brilliant show written by the same team. So why were these shows so good? (and even if you don't like sci-fi you could learn something from them!)
- The stakes were high every time. For some reason, all the bad guys want to destroy earth and often the plot has the Doctor saving Earth, or another planet or race. You might think this idea gets tired but with fantastic writing, it was gripping every time. What impressed me about the series was how intricate and believable the stories were, even when quite fantastical. The world building aspects draw you in and makes it real.
- Even on grand planetary scale episodes, the stakes were made personal. So in the destruction of Pompeii, we see the story of one family. When Daleks attack earth, we see the effect on a few people who we already care about. In one episode we even care about a single Dalek who is part human. In the same way, we don't respond to headlines like “War kills 2 million people” but we do respond to a charity that asks us to adopt one child, whose face we can see and whose life we can effect. So when you write your high stakes story, make sure the reader has a character to care about rather than a cast of thousands.
- The episodes often end on cliffhangers, even as the the present situation is resolved which keeps the viewer ready for the next one. This is what writers aim to do with chapters in novels. Keep the reader turning the pages. Each situation also gives the Doctor a chance to reveal more of his character, which makes us care for him and his fate – raising the stakes as we get more involved.
High stakes don't mean you have to write a disaster thriller or have a world-destroying plot, but the stakes have to be high on an individual level. They must be of importance to the protagonist and enough for the reader to care what happens.
Can you answer these questions for your novel?
- What are the stakes in your novel? Why should the reader care what happens?
- If the protagonist does not achieve their goal in the novel, then what happens? Are the consequences ‘big' enough?
- How can you raise the stakes to make them more significant?