If you want to have readers continuing to turn the page, they need to have a reason. Raising the stakes in your manuscript will give them that reason. Clark Chamberlain and Peter Turley give you clear ways to increase the problems for your characters and plot.
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Clark: Welcome to The Book Editor Show. Today we are discussing how you can raise the stakes in your manuscript.
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I’m Clark Chamberlain, and he once played in a poker game with J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer and George R.R. Martin; the game lasted over 39 hours, and instead of playing for money, they were gambling on who was allowed to publish what and when. Guess who won? He’s my friend and co-host, Peter Turley.
Peter, when are you going to let George put out the next book?
Peter: Well, he kind of ran out a few games in and he had to start gambling with his characters. Well, you can see how that ended up.
Clark: Yes. I’m OK that you’re holding [crosstalk]
Peter: I’ll raise you a John Snow. [laughs]
Clark: [laughs] and I’m perfectly fine that you’re keeping Stephanie Meyer out of publishing anything new. That’s all right.
Peter: Oh, no. It’s coming.
Clark: There’s only so much time left. It would have been a good game to see.
Peter: That’s what’s at stake for the whole world.
Clark: So, you’re looking very… Is it actually sunny there in England?
Peter: Yes. Our three days of summer have been gifted to us this week. So, you know, do not adjust your monitors if you’re watching this live. This is actually the color of my face today.
Clark: Well it looks good to get some color once a year.
So how you doing?
Clark: Really well. A lot of projects going on right now to take care of. A lot of editing that I’m doing, which is just great; it’s just so much fun being able to get in and work with people on their projects, especially the… Like this week I have three that I’m doing that are just outlines. Just helping them work out outlines before they start writing the book. That’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to be in that pre-production stage. It’s almost like being in a writer’s room, you know, where you can toss out ideas and — oh, what if this would work; what if you did this instead — so that’s a lot of fun.
Peter: That’s great. I don’t think that’s an area where a lot of people reach out for help on. They almost think that you’ve got to wait until you’ve got a finished piece to then try and seek someone else’s input or advice, but I think that’s just a great idea. Because you’ve not spent, invested all this time at that point. Because that’s the whole point of a critique group, isn’t it? You can bounce ideas off each other and go with the good ones and leave the bad ones behind. So I think that’s just awesome.
Clark: I’m sure that there’s a lot of people that hold off on doing something like this because they’re afraid that I’m just going to steal all their ideas, but guess what, I have no time. I’ve got no time to write my own books that I want to work on because I’m working on everyone else’s stuff.
Today I’m excited. We’re talking about steak, and I love steak. I love cooking —
Peter: I love steak.
Clark: — a nice steak.
Peter: It’s so hard not to think of it when you say it, isn’t it?
Clark: It really is.
Peter: How do you like your steaks?
Clark: I like a little bit of blood, a little bit of blooding in the middle there, of my steak.
Peter: Yes. Funnily enough, readers do too.
Clark: They do. They like to have steaks be a little bit bloody, and raise them up just a little bit.
Clark: OK, so we’re definitely not talking about the food steak, when we’re talking raising the stakes, we’re not talking about breeding cattle.
So we want to talk about being able to make changes in the book so that it’s going to help engage readers. So when we talk about stakes, we’re talking about what’s at stake. What matters to the protagonist and your characters and also what’s at a larger stake with the plot or the global stakes that would be involved in the story.
Peter: Unless it’s a witch, and then the “stake” literally is the stake.
Clark: Or vampires.
Peter: That’s what’s at stake.
Or vampires, yes. [laughs]
Peter: We’re trying to get all the bad jokes out now. [laughs]
Clark: You really are. [laughs]
Peter: It’s fertile ground so you know…
Clark: So Peter, when would you raise the stakes?
Peter: Well, I’m glad you asked.
I think that is worth considering because this is definitely something to do during the revision process. But it’s easy to fall into that trap of thinking we need to always raise the stakes — that every decision a character makes has to be a high-stake decision. Otherwise the story’s going to be boring; it’s going to fall flat and it’s not going to compel a reader to move on.
But I think that considering that they’re not always going to be high and you can kind of vary it is really helpful. But a good place to start is the turning point. I think that’s what a lot of people do — they consider your inciting incident, at the end of each act and the midpoint of the novel, are great natural-feeling points to raise the stakes up.
Clark: When we’re talking about that — I liked how you mentioned, you don’t always have to be out there raising the stakes. We can raise stakes at different levels. We can have really crazy high stakes, if you’re talking about a thriller and all of a sudden, now someone’s been kidnapped or something like that. But we can also be talking about minor and small stakes as well.
If you as a long time listener, we talked about motivational reaction, you know is quite a long time ago, and these have goals, they try to attempt it, it’s after a desire they try to attempt it; it fails; they react and then try to figure something else out.
These are great spots in small doses where you can raise stakes in small ways.
I remember we were talking about the guy going down to buy a soda, I think is what it was, and the stakes there were getting raised by all the people that he’s running into. Like, all of a sudden, it’s the old girlfriend. That raises the stakes a little bit, because now all of a sudden, he wants to stay away from the embarrassment. That is a small stake raise.
Peter: Yes. It’s a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Because it’s small in regard to plot, so it would be considered a small stake, but then if it’s highly embarrassing to that character i.e. it’s the ex-girlfriend or a situation they don’t want to be in, then it can still be a high stake to them, but not high stake in regard to the plot. It’s still effective; it still makes us cringe; it still gives us that reaction as a reader, but it still leaves room for us to really raise them later in regard to the overall story. Because obviously we don’t want to go too high too soon, but you can still be effective.
Clark: What you don’t want to have happen is, he goes down; he buys a bottle of soda; he pays for it; he walks outside; he opens it up and the transformers show up and blow the city apart.
Peter: [laughs] That could happen you know.
Clark: That could happen. I’ve seen it happen. Then where you going to go from there?
Peter: And then obviously reader is just thinking — did he get to finish the drink? What happened to the drink?
Clark: So we’ve got stakes on different levels, and we also have stakes that matter to the individual plus stakes that are mattering to the plot overall, or what you might consider global stakes or stakes that matter to more of the characters, larger stakes out there.
When you’re developing this, you’re going through your manuscript and you’re taking for spots that you’re trying to increase it… Because again, the reason why you’re doing this is that it keeps the reader interested. When you’ve got a chapter where at the end of it, a stake hasn’t been raised, or a stake raised hasn’t been concluded — they can accomplish this type of stuff — if those things haven’t happened, then it’s difficult to know to keep turning those pages. We want to keep them moving forward and being excited about this next scene, because, I know it sounds weird, but every time a stake gets raised, like, that’s going to bring the level inside the reader, they’re going to be a little bit more upset, or they’re going to be sitting on the edge of their seat while they’re reading; it’s going to be more intense for them, and that type of stuff, that’s what they’ve come here to do; they’ve come here to engage in that, and it works in every single genre.
Peter: It’s kind of like when you play a game and you know what, why do we play them, because you fail, it’s that feeling of facing the odds, having to overcome them, and them getting harder and bigger as you go through the game. The same in a book — the stakes get higher and higher and it’s that feeling of overcoming them and — will they? won’t they? — and that’s why it is so important to really pay attention to what the stakes are, why they matter to the character and the reader and exactly why is it important? Is it to build suspense? Is it to engage them? But the “why” is really important. It really helps when crafting the personal stakes. When you’re starting with, for example, the character bumping into the ex-girlfriend, I think it’s really helpful to think — why did I choose them as a protagonist in the first place? Why is this particular character going to be the lens through which we’re going to view this story? Why did I choose them? What is it about them? Is it a trait that they have? Is it a position that they hold in society or in the story?
That can really help us discover what’s a great personal thing to them — what matters to them. What are their views and their prejudices? That’s just a great starting point, asking yourself that question — in what way can I raise it on this level at least.
Clark: It’s really important to know who your characters are, so that you know what to take away from them and what they care about so that you can get them more motivated to go after something else.
Let’s talk more about this. We’ve go the personal stakes… Again, like I was saying before, this is every genre. Personal stakes can be right there from the beginning, because you know that you want to create a multidimensional character that has both flaws as well as strengths.
Some of those flaws can be stakes that get raised throughout the book. Some of maybe the more cliche ones like the detective who drinks too much. That could be a stake that then moves forward throughout it. It could be a personal stake in a more dramatic role of where a mother is trying to win a divorce battle to keep her children. That could be a subplot that’s running throughout this that’s something that matters to her, and then the stakes can continue to get raised — as new legal documents are filed against her and so on and so on.
These can be great little tiny raises and then we could do really big ones as well though with the personal stakes that will then interconnect with the plot at hand.
So let’s say we’re talking about romance. So in the romance book, the main idea is that you’re keeping the two people apart from each other. That is of course, their personal stake.
Along the way this gets raised every time is either if it’s more of a comedy romance where things are misunderstood or if it’s a deal where now all of a sudden the two families are getting involved and that becomes a larger stake at hand.
You can see you can put this it doesn’t matter the genre. You can put a stake anywhere along the way especially when you know who your characters are, you know what your character is about, what they want and what’s going to hold them back, and what would make them sad if it was taken away.
Peter: It’s so true. There’s a really strong link here between stake and characters as to how deep and real they feel. They’re really strongly correlated. If you’ve got a personal stake, something is at stake between two lovers, but then something bigger in a plot sense is going to happen — maybe the building’s going to blow up — that has to then override those personal stakes. But if the character puts more importance on just solving this personal issue over the bigger stake…
I said we’re going to be saying “stake” so much in this show. [laughs]
Clark: Have a little counter on there. This is a good drinking game show, by the way.
Peter: Yes. We’re doing it. So…
If the character has put their personal stake over that ultimate plot stake, then we’re going to lose belief in that character and that character’s not going to seem plausible and they’re not going to see them real. Considering why it’s important to them and how are they going to react when the stakes are raised — it’s intricately linked to how fleshed out your character is, how three-dimensional they are, and if there’s a weak character it’s going to show up when you raise the stakes. They have to react accordingly.
Clark: Whether it’s at a personal level… So if they have a belief and you’ve challenged that belief by raising the stakes that they act like — Peter you were just saying — act accordingly.
If you’re trying to… This is where we come into problems where we talk about whether something should be plot driven, whether something should be character driven, but having those combined together and having the equal amount is where you want it, because you never want it to feel like the plot’s jumping in and saying — you need to do this, and I’m going to pull you forward and you’re going to ignore everything else — but you also don’t want the character to be ignore what actually they would care about.
As you go through your manuscript, you’re going to look at this; you’re going to look at your characters; you’re going to say — yes, I raised the stakes in this portion here; how could I do this a little bit more, and if I do this…
So let’s do a thriller example. So if I kidnap an acquaintance — maybe you’ve introduced another smaller acquaintance of the detective earlier in the novel — if I take them away and have them be kidnapped [inaudible] about going after them. That’s where you need to ask that question.
You needed to take a look at your character’s sphere of influence — which one is going to matter more — if they take an acquaintance, of if they take his niece. That’s when you start really being able to control this better so that you’re picking the right stake to be raised, so that the character will respond in a believable manner and move forward.
Peter: It’s kind of like when thinking about internal stakes and external, internal conflicts and external conflicts. I think it works in that same way, that success in one can mean failure in another. That choice — if there’s those two things at stake, one of them has to give way. When considering what’s going to give way for what and what decisions will they make and seem plausible. It’s worth also remembering that “with great power comes great resp-” No. Not that. [laughs]
Peter: With extreme pressure generally come extreme decisions and it’s OK to make decisions that wouldn’t always be made, but might be made in that circumstance.
Clark: I want to give an example from a book I was working on earlier this month. It’s got a very cinematic element in it where it has this huge crash; it’s setting a neighborhood on fire and the protagonist is there trying to help. But then the protagonist continually is switching what they care about. Because he also cares about his family back home, and he’s caring about this guy that he met and his social problems that are going on and he’s worried about the job that he’s going to have. It was at that moment — you need to really be focused here. This is when our large plot issues — our outer problems — are hitting the protagonist and becoming their problem. So if I’m throwing this outer problem of having this huge wreck and things are setting on fire, that’s not the time for my protagonist to be concerned whether he’s got a job tomorrow. The concern is — the fire.
So we want to make sure that we’re staying —
Peter: — was pretty telling about the character if it wasn’t.
Clark: Yes, and the character could be selfish, and that could have been his concern to leave the area, and that would be alright. But have the character be more concerned about matters in their own life that aren’t directly related to the fire at hand, it became unbelievable. So we talked a lot about that and how he was going to go back and edit and refocus what mattered at that moment and it was what it started with — was him trying to help people and get out of the situation.
So make sure when you’ve raised a stake, that the protagonist is responding accordingly and not off on some other tangent.
Peter: Obviously we mean “unbelievable” not in the good way. [laughs]
Peter: It’s worth considering not only what will they do, but what won’t they do. That just helps make sure that when your character is facing a decision like this and you’re at risk of them making an unbelievable choice, that when you consider “what won’t they do” like what would they refuse to do — it just helps you flesh out that character a little bit more, give them more of a personality. If they have likes, they also have dislikes; if they will do something, they also won’t do something. There are these two sides and it gives you a better wiggle room when thinking about these decisions and these stakes.
Let’s talk about the larger ones. We’ve talked about the personal ones here.
When you’re talking about larger stakes getting into more of your plot elements, these need to be raised at proper times. Again going back, you’ve got key places that these things can happen throughout the normal flow of the story by ending acts and inciting incidents and working up to the climax of the story. So you need to start asking yourself on the global stakes — is that enough? Have I raised it enough? Have I raised it too much, or have I raised it enough?
Let’s give some examples here. Let’s talk some examples about what these could be.
Peter, do you want to do a fantasy example first? Like, what would be a global outer problem stake that could be raised in a fantasy situation?
Peter: I don’t think this one applies to just fantasy, but I don’t think you can get much bigger than the world is about to end, imminently. Or think Avengers — a portal’s been opened; a world’s going to come flooding into ours. Great catastrophe. Time bomb sort of stuff. We’ve got an hour, a day, a week — something that’s going to bring about the end. I think that’s as big as it gets.
Clark: That is as big as it gets.
Peter: You’ve kind of got to care about that stuff if you’re in that world.
Clark: You absolutely do.
Let’s use that example for another moment, and you could use that from the beginning of your story, because the ticking time bomb, the clock running out, is a fantastic way to pace a thriller — that you’ve got to finish it before the end. But if you took a look…
If you haven’t watched the Avengers, watch the first one, it’s a fantastic movie. It’s really good on storytelling. You take a look at how they did it. They didn’t have the portal opening at the beginning. The first thing was — something was stolen. Then we have some interactions with the villain. Then we have some falling out amongst the heroes. Then we get to the part where we’re going to rip a hole up in the sky and open the portal. So it’s a natural progression of raising the stakes slightly higher and higher.
This is one of the things that you can go through —
Peter: It would be… If you ripped the hole in the opening scene, it’s going to be really hard to care about the other… We’ve peaked to early at that point.
Clark: Yes, because then it would be moving them down. Yes, you’d lose interest. You’re like — oh, why are we dealing with this now? We’ve got a big hole in the sky we’ve got to take care of.
Again, it’s kind of like the fire and burning up homes.
So you’ve got that. And you take a look at your manuscript. So you’re going through it and you’re saying — where in my plot have I really upped it?
This is what you can ask. This is a great question. I believe that this is from Donald [Moss] in his workbook. The question is — how can I make this worse? What can happen to make this worse?
Peter: It’s usually the opposite of what you ask yourself in real life. [laughs]
Clark: Yes. Right. Where normally you’re trying to avoid what . . . here you want to make them much worse.
Peter: Sometimes I feel like I must have started the day off asking myself that question.
Clark: And you can get into this. This can be really fast, and you’ve got to be careful that you don’t start living like this the rest of your life — oh, how can I make this situation worse? Let me just throw this gasoline right onto the fire.
Peter: We’ve all got that one friend. [laughs]
Clark: And it certainly will spice up the night, but… [laughs] Might be dangerous.
You ask yourself that question — how can you make it worse? How can you up the stakes? How can you raise the ante? — and you just want to pile on the problems.
So let’s say for instance, we’re doing just a more dramatic and more literary type fiction novel, where it’s got some just small things in it — there’s not going to be any explosions; there’s not going to be anything — so we start off with the character, the protagonist, finding out that his house is going to be foreclosed, because he’s lost his job. So here we’ve got a problem — we’ve lost a job. That’s problem one. How can we increase that problem? Well, we send him a note that the house is going to be foreclosed. So we’ve done a small thing. Then he’s trying to figure out how to solve that issue and how can we make that worse? Well now let’s put a time element. In fact, you don’t have 90 days; you only have 30 days.
How can you continually make the problem increase in small increments. Because what you want — you want to have the problem, have them try to figure out how to solve the problem and maybe they’ve solved it that way, and then make it worse right before they can solve it or once they have figured out a way to solve the issue.
Peter: To make sure that this is coming across properly, it’s always useful if you can show the reader what the consequence is going to be, what’s going to happen “if.” What’s the “or else”? What are the consequences of this going wrong first, and then have them try to solve it. Again, you send them the note, and it’s revealed what the consequences will be if this doesn’t happen, and then comes the solving of the raised stake, the problem.
That’s just a great way to ensure that the reader is involved and engaged with the solving of this problem. Because the last thing that you want is to raise a stake that no one cares about because you can’t see the consequence of not solving the problem.
Clark: Yes. You definitely want to have the consequence there. In this situation, like Peter was saying, the bank could send them a letter or whatever like that.
Another way that you could do this is creating a… I was going to say “patriotic” but that’s the wrong word. So… You create a character —
Peter: We don’t do wrong words. [laughs]
Clark: I know. [laughs] I should have written this one down. But it just barely came to mind there, though.
You have a way that you can create characters that are symbolic — there we go — you can create a symbolic character that’s representative of the possible future for the protagonist, and they could have just gone through the same problem and had their life destroyed. Then we can see that this is the possible outcome and this is why we should care about it. That symbolic character can represent that possible future for the protagonist and then that creates more conflict with the protagonist and more concern and the reader can understand exactly what’s going to happen here.
Peter: I think it’s always useful to highlight something in a work of fiction, is to contrast it with something else, to hold a mirror up against something, against a character, against a problem, and it really helps shed that kind of light. It’s kind of like the way Darth Vader looks at the Emperor, at the end of The Return of the Jedi. It’s kind of like that little look like — OK, I’ve got a choice here. I end up like that, or I make a good decision.
Clark: This could be another way — talking Star Wars — so in the first Star Wars movie, we have a demonstration of the Death Star, so that we really understand what’s at stake, what the power of this weapon is. So this can be another way that you can show a test of something, especially if you’re in a thriller, that you can really show the consequences of the actions and what’s going to be happening if they don’t take care of it.
Peter: Can not wait — the new Star Wars film that’s coming out soon — Rogue…
Rogue One. At that point they’re building the death star. If we didn’t know already what it did, it wouldn’t be that much… OK, they’re building, so it could be a hotel. [laughs] Who cares?
Clark: Yes. They’re building an intergalactic hotel where people are going to come. There’s going to be really nice rooms. And it looks like it’s got a great satellite dish so it can get —
Peter: Great wifi.
Clark: So since we’ve already seen it, that kind of prequel story can work that way. So if you’re raising stakes, have you really demonstrated to your reader what is actually at stake here; do they really understand it, and this is another spot where you’re editing through, that you make sure that they really do understand it, this is where a beta reader can come in and say — I just didn’t get it; I don’t understand why they cared so much about stopping this thing. It didn’t seem to matter. Couldn’t they have just done X instead?
That’s another thing you want to take a look at when you’re raising the stakes. Write down that stake and then write down what are the possible solutions, here. Are there things that my character is just completely avoiding because I want my story to run this way. If that’s the situation, then you would go through and edit in parts of why they can’t do it the easy way.
Peter: And if something comes up that… It can also be a bit of a problem when you have a well rounded character that sometimes they want things that are a little outside the plot, but you can use that to your advantage and be — OK, well we can have a stake, a multifaceted on different levels, just because the character wants something. It’s just great to show the reader what the protagonist wants and then threaten it. Put it in danger.
That’s an effective, very over-simplified formula. But show the reader what it is that the protagonist is going after and then put that in danger; threaten it all the way through the book. To me, that kind of sums up how a stake works.
Clark: I can’t say any better than that.
I will say, when you’re editing, do your manuscript. This is a very good technique that when you come to the end of a chapter, if you feel like your chapters aren’t moving the reader into the next one — we’ve talked about cliff hangers and things — raising the stakes is a better way to end those chapters. Because you’re going to have really high moments where a lot of stuff is taking place. You need to have your low moments, the quiet moments, so we can have more character interaction; we can build the character up. But at the end of each of these chapters, if we have a way to raise one of our stakes at the end of our chapter that’s going to propel the reader to want to see how it’s solved in the next one. It’s a very easy way to look, and say — have I mentioned it?
Because one of the things that can really happen easily, is that you can have a stake — and you may only have one, and that’s a problem — but you’ve got this stake out there and you don’t talk about it for three or four chapters, and the reader’s just kind of forgotten about it, and it’s not moving them forward.
Peter: Going to issue something that we rarely issue — spoiler alert for The Hobbit.
We know that the fact that there’s a dragon there is a pretty big stake, but it’s talked about, it’s talked around, it is very much in the background and the characters then go off and face a series of rising stakes throughout the story, but then at the end of — I think is it the first one — when they wake him up and fail to kill him and he flies off towards the nearest town to basically slaughter it, they suddenly become aware that it’s not just their lives and their goals at risk. Now there’s like a whole village that they’ve just endangered. And that happens right at the end and it’s a really effective technique to be like — OK, I need to see the next one.
Clark: It’s a great way to propel the person forward into reading — or watching — the next one. You can see it done in drama television all the time right now. At the end of it, they always reveal that something has happened with their overarching storyline that will make you want to get into the next one, even though you get into the next one and that’s not immediately what they’re solving; they’re going to do something else along the way, but it’s that hook that moves them.
At the end of the day, that’s why we want to raise the stakes, is because we want to hook our reader from one chapter to the next chapter to the next one. They just can’t stop reading it. And if we don’t have enough problems, we don’t have enough of these stakes; we’re not raising them in the right way, then they’re not going to do it. They will be bored with the story and not continually moving forward with it.
Peter: That highlights why it’s so effective when you’re thinking about when to do this, why the turning points are a great place to do it, because for all intents and purposes, when Smaug flies off to Laketown, that’s the end of Act 1. So we’re right at the end of Act 1, pretty much, the stakes have just been raised. Because when you move into say, the mid-portion or a different part, there’s generally kind of a lowering of tension, isn’t there? Because more plots come into play, or you need to then move into the midway of the story, and tension can fall. So these turning points are a great place to just amp it up that little bit and raise the stakes at these points. You don’t have to always be propelling them on to another book. Like Clark just said, it can be at the end of a chapter, it can be the next act, the next portion of the book, or just before tension is about to fall, so you can use it effectively to peak because you know that there’s going to be a period of calm following.
Clark: Exactly. Again, just remember the reason why you want to have the stakes is to keep people reading. Go through your manuscript, take a look that you have both personal and more of the global plot-oriented stakes; look where you can raise them, both small raises and large raises, and then just make sure, again, that it makes sense for the character — that they would be engaged and interested in following that raise that you’ve done.
Clark: Peter, do you have anything to add, to close us up here?
Peter: I want steak.
Clark: I do too.
Peter: I don’t know why?
Clark: Don’t know why. I think we’ll toss on an advertisement on here at the end for some…
Peter: Oh, I meant to say, great ad read at the beginning. You’ve totally missed your calling as an ad reader.
Peter: I could listen to that stuff all day.
Clark: Well, thank you. And it’s funny, because I just totally get into that voice.
In fact, if you enjoy this show, please leave us a review on iTunes, a Like on YouTube, or a Plus on Google. Also, come by and Like our Facebook page and share the show with your author friends. And if you’re an editor who’d like to be a guest on the show, please drop us a line at thebookeditorshow.com.
I’m Clark Chamberlain for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning, and build a better book.