Writing Tips & Tools

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lesson 14: Public Stakes

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

We're done with Character Development, now we're moving on to Plot Development! Today's lesson is in Section TWO: Public Stakes.

We sometimes think, It can't get any worse than this. (But I can tell you after our flooding two weeks ago...and now torrential downpours)...Oh, but it can! That is the essence of raising the outward, or public stakes: making things worse, showing there is more to lose, promising even bigger disasters will happen if the hero doesn't make matters come out okay.

Everyday problems presented in an ordinary way, problems that anyone might have on any given day, do not have the power to become universal. That is, to resonate within us and remind us of all humanity and its eternal struggle. But when stakes rise to a high enough order of magnitude, a protagonist's problems will become the problems that we all have. What was personal becomes public.

In your present WIP where are the stakes? How far do they rise? How bad do they get? Take them higher and deeper. Bwa hah hah...make them worse...much worse. Your novel can only get better!

Step 1: Write down your novel's overt and outward central conflict or problem.

Step 2: What would make this worse? Write down as many reasons as you can.

Step 3: When you run out of ideas, ask yourself, "What would make this problem even worse?"

Step 4: When you run out of steam ask, "What are the circumstances under which my protagonist would actually fail to solve this problem?

Step 5: Have you novel conclude with your protagonist's failures. Can you pull some measure of happiness from this ending?

Note: Things can always get worse. Raise the stakes by making what might be lost more valuable.

Follow-up: Incorporate into your story four raisings of the outward (plot) stakes.

Conclusion:A common failure in novels is that we can see the ending coming. The author signals his preferred outcome, and guess what? That's how things turn out. The only way to keep an ending in doubt is to make failure possible. Even better is to make failure happen. Maybe what's actually at stake isn't what you thought at all!


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