Delicious Stakes

SteakI talked a few weeks ago about building tension (link here!), and one of the elements I mentioned was emotionally significant consequences. This element is also known as ‘stakes’.

So what are stakes? Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain, or what forces your character to do The Thing and to stick with it through to the end instead of doing anything else. Stakes are closely tied to goals and motivations, so it’s very important that your character has them and that the reader is able to understand them. Even when protagonists are technically criminals or some brand of ‘bad guys’ (like the cast of Firefly, who are smugglers, thieves, and murderers, but we love them anyway), having understandable motivations can go a long way in making the reader care about the consequences of the story, and the outcome of the story.

On the other hand, even the goodest of guys cannot force you to care about a thing that they don’t give a used fig for. If your character has nothing meaningful at stake in a story, then it doesn’t really matter what they do. Why bother to go save the world when eating pork rinds and watching the Super Bowl is so much easier?

So how can we, as the writers of these stories, raise the stakes? How can we make sure that the things at stake matter to the characters, and by extension to our readers? And how can we craft stakes that will carry tension- and a reader’s interest- throughout the entire story?

There are multiple ways to do it, and which one you use will vary from story to story, with some stories even needing more than one type of stake. (And I’m sure this little list isn’t exhaustive, so if you have any good ones I failed to think up, please give a shout out in the comments section!)

Increase the Stakes You know those superhero stories where, in the first movie or book or whatever, the hero just has to save his classmates at prom? And then by the second one, the whole city’s in peril? And then aliens show up and then the whole world needs saving? The stakes increase each time. And it doesn’t need to just happen throughout a series. This can also apply within a single story. Maybe at the start of the story, the hero is just worried that his protective mom’s going to find out and ground him forever.  And then he’s worried that the villain will find out about his family and try to hurt them. It’s only by the very end, after juggling secrets and life and generally making a mess of both, that he has to save his whole school. Increasing the stakes- especially while dangling just a liiiiittle bit of peace and happiness in front of your main character before snatching it away- can keep tension high throughout a story.

Personalize the Stakes This one kind of takes the stakes in the opposite direction of the previous one. Instead of widening the stakes out bigger and bigger, try bringing them down into smaller, more personal pieces. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to go back in time to save the world from cyborgs, but it’s the only way to save that one friend that they lost along the way. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to save all of Chicago from the madman with a bomb; maybe they’re only in it because their daughter’s preschool is across the street from the detonation and that little girl means everything to them. Making stakes that a stranger doesn’t really care about that much, but that holds up the whole world for your character, can make for intense stakes.

Clash of the Stakes Most people have more than one motivator in life. Characters are the same. They’re not automatons programed to chase after one goal and not to care about anything else ever. So maybe your character devoutly adheres to a very strict religion, but gosh, they really want to watch a live event that happens right during church. What’s a body to do? Or maybe your character really wants to reconnect with his estranged father who deploys in two days, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his and his wife’s struggling business has arrived and must be acted upon immediately or it’s gone forever. What’s a body to do?? Make a character choose between love and honor, between loyalty and opportunity, between Goal A and Goal B, because, curse this awful universe, they just can’t have both.

A final thing to keep in mind while coming up with stakes for your character is the difference between selfish goals and selfless goals. If a character only has selfish goals, especially when those goals overshadow selfless goals, readers aren’t as likely to empathize with them, which means they won’t care as much about the events of the story. If a character has selfless goals they’re fighting for- something that’s important to a spouse, or trying to save a friend, or support a child, etc- that’s much more interesting, especially if it means having to sacrifice some of their own personal goals. (Side note: selfish goals aren’t always bad. Sometimes a character just wants to save their own marriage or prioritize their own happiness or something like that, and that’s okay. When I talk about selfish goals being hard to empathize with or disinteresting, I’m more talking about selfish goals that come at the detriment of someone else. Those are less fun to read in my opinion. I don’t really get revenge tales, y’know?)

How about you fine readers? Any other ideals for upping the stakes in a story? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!


The Great Annual Resolutions Post

calvinresolutionHowdy, folks! Hey, look, we all survived another year! Wowza!

I made a few resolution shifts midyear last year. I switched over from the paper calendar system I had been using to a phone app called Habitica that is delightfully nerdy and keeps me on my toes. It taps into my love of check boxes, but then also has a built in reward system, so it works very well for me, and I think I’ll cling to it forever.

Overall, I had a good year, without too many dropped balls on my goals. My exercise goals got derailed every now and then by rugby injuries, and I jumped ship on a few writing projects, switching over to things that were more interesting at the time (because squirrel brain: the struggle is real). And as mentioned a few weeks ago, I did manage to scratch and claw my way to receiving Writer of the Year from the Alaska Writers Guild. But the goal I know you’re all just dying to know about: the rejections goal.

As you may recall from this post last year, I had a goal to receive at least forty-eight rejections. I counted short story submissions, queries, competitions- anything that pitted my writing against a slush pile. The final count is in aaaand… I failed! *sad trombone* As of December 31, I only tallied forty-four rejections.

I’m not being too hard on myself, because I still managed to achieve the two main objectives of the rejection goal: I got better at taking rejections as impersonal matters of preference, and I pushed myself to submit waaaay more than I usually do. As a result, I also had way more acceptances than I normally do! And as an added benefit that I hadn’t even anticipated, I had a super productive year for short stories too, because I had to make sure that I had fresh material to shop around as my old store of shorts got published. Overall, it was a very good year for my writing!

So I think I’m gonna stick with what works. I’ll keep with a forty-eight rejections goal for this year as well, since I felt really pushed and still didn’t quite manage to make the goal. I think I can hit it for reals this time! For novels, since I didn’t stick with the titles I had planned to work on, but still managed to get good work done with other projects, this year I think I’ll just drop the specifics altogether and just have a goal of two new first drafts, and a round of edits each for two first drafts from last year. I’ll work on whatever sounds most fun in the moment! I also plan to average one new short per month, although I don’t plan on worrying too much about how marketable they all are. And for daily goals, I plan a baseline of 500 words per day, and ten minutes of backshop, with Sundays off to rest my weary brain meats. I have goals for my spiritual, mental, and physical health as well, but that’s it for my writing goals.

Whew! All the things! I should have plenty to keep myself busy over the next year. I would love, love, love to hit that rejections goal, and maybe even outstrip this year’s number of acceptances. Heck, if we’re getting really pie-in-the-sky, I’d like to pick up an agent as well, haha, but that one’s a little less in my control. The only thing I can do is keep researching, stay consistent, and continue to hone my craft as much as I can. So that’s what I’ll do!

How about you fine folks? Any exciting new goals for this year? Let’s chat about them in the comments section! I’d love to know your plans!

Until next week, happy writing, and happy New Year as well!

Diary-Free Cheese and Other Horrible Failures

FoodFailSo I did it again. I got cocky. Flush with the victory of yet another culinary triumph, I decided to jump to the boss level. After all, I’ve been successfully making delicious fresh and aged cheeses for years. None of which I can eat. So how hard could making a dairy-free cheese be? Um… yeah. Let’s just say that the taste of puke in the back of my throat was an improvement on the taste of that “cheese”.

As rockin’ as I think I am in the kitchen, I’m just as arrogant when it comes to writing sometimes. Several months ago, I had a pretty good track record on getting short stories published. It was almost easy. Of course, giving away free content is pretty easy, so I figured it was time to up my game. At this point, a reasonable person would graduate up into a slightly higher pay bracket. But I’m pretty terrible at gradations. I jumped straight to the big game, expecting hundreds of dollars to start flowing in immediately.

Yeah. I went months without selling anything. It got so bad that I stopped writing short stories altogether, so sure I was of their imminent failure.

I tend to think about my failings often. Usually, it’s just indulgent self-loathing that serves no purpose beyond building up a nice thick angst cloud that my hubby can spent the next several weeks trying to air out of the house. Keeps us entertained. But sometimes, I’m able to glean little nuggets of usefulness instead. And here’s what I’ve learned from trying to jump ranks in the short story realm.

Set Attainable Goals I told myself I was going to make hundreds of dollars.  Then I could pay to go down to a writer’s conference, and maybe get a better computer.  And maybe buy a house!  (Okay, I wasn’t quite that optimistic.)  I made it my goal to only sell to top-tier magazines, and to do it quick.  And that just wasn’t viable.  Failing to meet my goals, or to even adjust them, just sent me further into a writing funk.

Edit, Edit, Edit One of the nice things about publishing your work in smaller presses that nobody’s heard of is that they’re pretty accepting of your content. Especially if they’re not paying you for it. I’m not saying that small indie e-zines can’t put out some stellar content, because a lot of them do. But for me, I got really lazy about the things I was submitting. Most of it was checked over for typos, but not much more. So when I tried to sell that sort of stuff to more illustrious titles, I got laughed right off the website.

Practice Your Craft I stopped producing new stories. I just recycled all the old stuff that I couldn’t sell and wouldn’t improve. It was shocking how nobody wanted my sloppy seconds. And I got so out of practice at writing a tight, compelling short story that I couldn’t even see the flaws anymore.

Don’t Stop at No A problem with submitting to mega-famous well-paying magazines is that everyone else is. With such a large pool of talented writers to choose from, your odds of getting rejected are much higher. It’s just part of the game. But rather than reworking the stories, writing new ones, or submitting to less in-demand publications, I just gave up.  I stopped completely.  And what do you call a writer who’s not writing?  A… uh… well, I don’t know.  But not a writer, that’s for sure.

So, as was mentioned in my resolutions post, I’m trying to get back into short stories. Publications tag me as a professional, helping to build up my bio; with the proliferation of the internet and mobile devices that can access it, there’s more opportunity than ever to sell short stories; writing shorter stories, wherein readers expect a payoff and expect it quick, helps me keep my writing tuned up; and, with all our uber-tech and pathetic attention spans, short stories are more popular than ever.

It’s a new year and I am fully recommitted to short stories. At only a week and a half into the month, I’ve already started two new ones. So what’s holding you back?  And will you instead commit to throat-punching that road-block into submission? 😀