One of the early things you’ll hear when you start out writing fiction is the phrase ‘raising the stakes’. But what does it actually mean, and more importantly, how do you do it?
We’ve all read novels or watched movies or TV shows that make us hold our breath and tense our shoulders. It’s this tension in the narrative that makes for engaging reading or viewing. And that tension is brought about by the writer somehow raising the stakes.
Raising the stakes means throwing everything at your characters. Making them uncomfortable, putting them in situations that make them question their values or morals, and forcing them to make choices that have serious consequences. The more we throw at our characters, the more they have to risk or put on the line with the choices they make (or we as writers make for them).
Raising the stakes means building the tension until something has to give – the suspense of what will give (or what the character could lose) is what engages the reader. By this stage of the story, your reader will (should) be rooting for your characters. Wanting them to succeed. Wanting things to turn our right. And it is our job as writers to make it look as if that isn’t going to happen.
So why is it so hard for us as writers to do this? It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Make things bad for your character. Easy! But it’s not.
You see, when you raise the stakes for your character your story becomes messy and complicated. Plotlines intersect and more often than not, your manuscript ends up looking like a badly crocheted blanket, with twisted wool and gaping holes. It’s much easier to stick with one little ‘mishap’ for your character. The problem is, that’s the surefire way to lose the reader’s interest. Your readers will not only be bored but they’ll be angry. They came here for a story! They chose your book and invested their precious time, so it’s your job to make it worthwhile. That’s why you must raise the stakes; as high as you can!
Raising the stakes doesn’t necessarily mean putting your characters in life or death situations. For a crime or psychological suspense novel that may be entirely acceptable, but the stakes don’t always need to be that high.
It comes back to knowing what your character’s goal is. And what’s getting in the way of them reaching that goal. Ask yourself, what is the worst thing that could happen to your character that would make it awfully hard for them to achieve that goal? What could they lose along the way? How does it play into their biggest fears? What personal flaws could you expose? What does your character need to risk? What will be the consequences of their actions? And, what morals and values are you asking them to question?
All these things raise the stakes for your character and therefore the tension in your story.
But, it’s not easy. It’s one of the things I struggle with the most, and I know I’m not alone. When I finish the first draft I know the thing I need to work on most, is raising the stakes. And it’s happened in every manuscript I’ve written.
This is where the editing process comes into full swing. Where you have to pull your novel apart, change things up, and do a heck of a lot of rewriting. It’s where the hard work takes place. Again. And again.
But, it’s worth it. And, if you want to write page-turning, commercial fiction it’s absolutely necessary. Because when it comes down to it, without raising the stakes, you don’t really have a story.