Writing Tips & Tools

Friday, July 20, 2007

Lesson 8: Ultimate 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: Ultimate Stakes.

Think about why we do the things we do...Lately my version of that has been a little skewed, but none the less...We get up, scan the paper, fight the rush hour, placate the boss, mow the lawn, save for vacation, etc, etc. There are reasons for all of these things. Not that we think about them before acting, but if pressed we could come up with explanations.

We care. We feel that what we do matters, even when it is a small thing. We have to care because no one can live for long feeling that life is futile, or without purpose. If we did, at the least, we'd stay in bed in the morning. At worst, after a life without reason, we'd check out.

When life tests us to the utmost, our motives grow exponentially greater. Our deepest convictions rise close to the surface. We become more determined to make a difference, to persist, to overcome all problems and obstacles.

At the moment of ultimate testing we summon our deepest beliefs and swear that nothing, nothing, will stop us!

The hero of your novel also will be tested to the limit of his/her convictions, or at least I hope so! If not, are there enough obstacles in the way of your protagonist? How does he/she respond at this supreme moment? the way that you or I would, let's hope, but even more strongly.

Is there a moment of ultimate stakes in your current manuscript? If not, fix it on the page. Your hero's testing and eventual commitment will be fixed in your reader's mind for a long time to come!

Step 1: Identify the moment in your story when your protagonist's stakes hit home...when he/she realizes that there is no turning back. This is the moment of irrevocable commitment.

Step 2: Write out that moment in one paragraph.

Step 3:Look at the paragraph you have written. Notice its shape, feel its effect. Now imaging that this is the first paragraph of your novel.

Note: Probably it would be difficult to place that paragraph at the top of page one. It's probably part of the climax. If you put it first you'd wind up with a novel told as a flashback. And there's a Certain Agent that we all know who would set her hair on fire at the notion of this!

Even so, it's tantalizing to think that your protagonist could have that kind of commitment, and your novel, that kind of emotional power, right from the opening moment, isn't it?

Well why not? don't dump a mountain of commitment on your protagonist immediately, yet you can give him/her a passioned caring about something at the beginning. Emotionally speaking, why open the novel in low gear?

Follow-up: The moment of commitment that you just created has an opposite: a moment of irresolution, a healthy adversion, a justified selfishness, or similar reaction. Write it down. find a place earlier in you manuscript to slot this in.

Conclusion:: You may not wind up directly using the paragraph that you created with this exercise: however, let your hero's inner commitment infuse and underlie all his/her actions. Let them be driven. When resolve weakens, reinforce it. Strong commitment on the part of your protagonist will generate strong commitment on the part of your reader.

The same is true, not surprisingly, when you create strong commitment on the part of your antagonist!


Post a Comment