Writing Tips & Tools

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Lesson 7: Personal 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!

Today's lesson is in Section One: Personal Stakes.

It is easy to dismiss the protagonist's personal stakes as just another way of saying what motivates him. That's too simple. Personal stakes are more than just what a hero wants to do. They illustrate why. Why this goal and the action that must be performed, matters in a profound and personal sense. The more it matters to your hero...the more it will matter to your readers.

What are your protagonist's personal stakes in your current manuscript and how do they rise? Why does he/she care? Why might he care more?
Without personal stakes, even the highest-voltage thriller is an empty plot exercise. Raise the personal stakes and we will all care what happens in your story no matter whether the plot is boiling or not.

Step 1. what is your protagonist's main problem, conflict, goal, need, desire, yearning, or whatever it is driving him/her through the story.

Step 2. What could make this problem matter more. Write down as many new reasons as you can think of.

Step 3. When you run out of reasons, ask yourself what could make this problem matter even more than that?

Step 4. When you run out of steam, ask yourself what could make this problem matter more than life itself.

Follow-up:For all the ways to deepen the personal stakes that you created above, work out how to incorporate each into your novel. Include at least six.

Conclusion: Every Protagonist has a primary motive for what they do. Outward motives are easy to devise, but inner motives most powerfully drive a character forward. Don't just look at all the possibilities...Use them! That is what raising personal stakes is all about. It's extra work, but the results will be a more gripping novel.


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