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!

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Creating Tension

archerFor this week’s blog post, I’d like to unpack just one sentence from Moritz Lehne and Stefan Koelsch’s paper, Toward a General Psychological Model of Tension and Suspense (which published in the Feb 2015 issue of Frontiers in Psychology): “…[T]ension experiences originate from states of conflict, instability, dissonance, or uncertainty that trigger predictive processes directed at future events of emotional significance.”

Isn’t that just the meatiest sentence? To get through this, let’s look at each of the key words and phrases: conflict, instability, and dissonance; uncertainty; and predictive processes and emotional significance. Then we’ll trot through a few examples about why each of these elements is important. (Science! Whee!)

Conflict, Instability, and Dissonance occur when the comfortable, homeostatic everyday of the character is interrupted. When people are struggling toward disparate goals, when something’s off, when things are crazy, it makes characters deeply uncomfortable, and they long for the peace and predictability they once enjoyed. This lays the groundwork for tension.

Uncertainty This aspect of tension usually arises in the form of an unanswered question (or series of related questions) that a character really wants answered. Who pulled the trigger? When will the bomb go off? Why are all the wallabies disappearing? What will happen when the boss finds out? Will I get away with stealing my husband’s last cookie while he was out skiing this morning? The experience of tension resolves when all pertinent questions are answered.

Predictive Processes and Emotional Significance Anticipation and expectations are huge in creating tension, especially when geared toward things that matter deeply to the characters. Tension is the highest when anticipated outcomes vary greatly between really good outcomes, which trigger hope, and really bad ones, which trigger fear. (These scenes are tenser than scenes with outcomes that are more neutral.) Character- and reader- expectations can either be validated (yay, you were right) or violated (surprise, you were wrong!).

These things together create a longing for resolution, and drag tension along until the situation is resolved one way or the other. To help clarify how each of these elements is important, let’s look at a few examples.

My husband had a friend in college who later married and had one son. She doted on this baby constantly, giving him everything he wanted and making certain he never got so much as a scratch on him. She never left him with a babysitter, hardly got any sleep, and couldn’t bear to let him cry for even a moment. She sounds like a typical helicopter mom spoiling her kid rotten, right? Not a lot of tension there.

Not quite. To simplify greatly, for medical reasons, if this child cried too hard, his respiratory system would malfunction, resulting quickly in permanent brain damage or death. This one fact- involving predictive processes and emotional significance- changes the situation from that of a helicopter mother of a spoiled only child to that of a harried young woman fighting desperately to keep her son alive.

It works the other way around too. Rockfish regularly experience conflict, but their inability to anticipate, to dread, to long for resolution to the conflict, makes them unable to experience tension in the way that people do. (Likewise, a fish wouldn’t be excited about an upcoming event either, unlike my kids when my husband and I start chatting about what we might have for dessert. SO MUCH TENSION.) To use another example, if you remove just the emotional significance of a situation, the tension isn’t there- because if the character doesn’t care whether or not they win the Baron Brownie’s Bread Baking Bonanza, then why should readers? Or maybe they do care, but are one-hundred-percent going to win because they’re the only entrant; in that case, there is no uncertainty in the situation, and therefore no tension. Removing any one of these aspects removes the tension, or at least weakens it greatly. You as the writer would have to ramp up the tension in some other place in some other way using all these aspects.

A final element I’d like to mention that isn’t in our above sentence (but does come up later in the paper) is control: If your character is wallowing in all this conflict, but has complete control over the situation, they’re not a person I want to hang out with for an entire book. It is the lack of control on the part of some significant character in the scene that makes it so tense. To go back to the sick baby example above, it would change the situation profoundly if the mother could easily make her son well, but chose to keep him sick. There might still be tension in the situation, but it shifts our sympathies away from the mother, making her the villain rather than the hero. (This lack of control is often most apparent when the character is trying their darnedest to exert control through actions that just keep digging them deeper and deeper in trouble.)

When writing a scene (or heck, a whole book), try using each of these elements to ramp up the tension. And if you want to dig a little deeper into the psychology of all this, read the full article, which was suuuuuper interesting and contains way more than I had the room to discuss, right HERE. You’ll feel like you’re in college again! Whee!

Until next time, happy writing!

Writing Craft Listening List

podcastHello, fair denizens of the internet! Last week, I shared a reading list on some possible game-changing craft books (link to full post here!). This week, I thought I’d try something just a little different and cover a few media beyond the written word. If you like to hit a different learning style every now and then, try some of these other types of literary learning.

 

YouTube channels!

Lessons from the Screenplay So I stumbled across this one during my regular YouTube perusing, because Google is stalking us all and knows what we think and there is no hope once the AI uprising begins. But for now, we get these great targeted suggestions! Hurray!

Ellen Brock’s Novel Writing Advice So these videos aren’t visually stunning, but I like to just turn them on and let them run in the background while I wash dishes or what-have-you, kind of like a podcast. They all come in under ten minutes and have helpful tips and ideas that are specific and applicable. Definitely worth a watch.

Ted-Ed Ted-Ed is kind of awesome in all ways ever (and I’ve used it for researching everything under the sun) and they have some very good writing lectures about the psychology behind stories, the hero’s journey, worldbuilding, language craft, you name it. And they’re all so charmingly animated, too! I like to watch these with my kids- we get entertained and educated at the same time!

(Want more YouTube channels? Check out Kelly Gurnett’s 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers!)

 

Podcasts!

Writing Excuses, by authors Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and web cartoonist Howard Tayler Alpha reader and fellow Sanderson fan M. Elizabeth Tait started me on this podcast, back when I did not do podcasts. The fact that she got me to willingly try out some newfangled doohickey them kids is into really speaks for itself.

Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticast This one was pointed out to me by a librarian friend, and she’s right, it’s fun and informative without ever getting too dense. This one throws a wider net than Writing Excuses, including publishing info as well as craft.

 

Lectures!

The Great Courses After receiving a writing grant, I nabbed a few of these audio classes, but there are tons more out there. My fave so far is Writing Great Fiction, and I can’t wait to get started on Building Great Sentences, which I sincerely hope is just as nerdy and pedantic as it sounds. (But seriously, is it just me or do they use the word GREAT a bit much?)

Master Class Okay, so I haven’t done this one, but I reeeeeally want to do the new one with Judy Blume, it looks fantastic. Here’s a link to it. There are other writers on there as well, and I’m sure any of them would be just super. *stares longingly at screen*

 

And there are always classes through your local higher education institution. You pay a bit more, but you also get some swanky feedback and networking as part of the deal. Give it a think or two!

Anyway, I hope the last few weeks have been useful. I’ve really been on a craft kick lately (maybe my brain’s way of punching me in the butt after the especially bad first draft I limped out this last NaNo) and I feel like I’ve been getting a lot out of it. Maybe you will too! And as always, please share any other resources you love that I’ve missed in my list, and I will send you a dozen imaginary bonbons straight to your cerebral cortex. Promise!

Happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Save Your Character From A Drowning Story

Hey, gang! I’m down south visiting family in Anchorage Alaska, and getting very little writing done while I instead plan vacations, bake all the things, and hold the tiniest of humans far more than is necessary.  Fortunately, I’ve got the word count buffer to sustain this kind of lifestyle for another few days during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Any of you fellow wrimos- how go the literary hijinks?

This is our last reblog of the month, and then I have to start being thoughtful again. This one comes from Nicole Blades via Writers Digest, and stuck out to me probably because my story kind of stinks this month, haha. It’s nice to know that if the ship sinks, I might at least be able to launch a lifeboat and get my MC to dry land again.

5 Ways to Save Your Character From a Drowning Story

NBladeby Nicole Blades

As writers, we’ve all experienced that moment when it becomes painfully clear that the story we’re working on just isn’t. We’ve tried to twist and bend it this way and that, but then it’s time to finally admit that we’ve come to the end of the rope with the manuscript and will have to let go. It’s next-level kill your darlings, and it’s rarely pleasant or easy. But what if the protagonist or a key character in that sinking story won’t let go of you? What if the character continues to haunt you and you simply cannot give up on them? Is there a way to valiantly rescue a great protagonist from a less than great story? Short answer: Yes! So, move over, Rose; there’s definitely room for Jack on that floating piece of wood.

I’ve lived through this with my latest novel, Have You Met Nora? (Kensington). My main character, Nora Mackenzie, is a young woman with an incredible secret and a heartbreaking but complicated backstory. She is flawed and layered and fascinating to me. However, the initial setting of the book—an all-girls’ Catholic boarding school in Vermont, where a 17-year-old Nora reigned as the queen of Mean Girls—wasn’t connecting. As Dawn Brooks, a character in the revised book would say, “it didn’t curl all the way over.” I had received feedback from agents, writers, and early readers that kind of all said the same thing: she’s too mean. As compelling as Nora’s story was in my eyes, having readers say that they couldn’t relate to her, that they couldn’t find the connection site with the character, meant that they would never care about what happens to her. And that spells The End for the story. Who’s going to want to keep reading when they don’t care about the protagonist? Exactly.

The thing is, this character captivated me, and the heart of the story I was trying to tell was still beating strong. I just needed to strip away everything else around Nora’s foundation and rebuild it using sturdier, more developed bricks. I went about it by first growing Nora up, moving the character out of school and into full-blown adulthood. I had to construct a fresh world around her that included new relationships, experiences, and weighty conflict that served the character and the story. This kind of revise wasn’t a walk in the park; it took years to pull it off, but I did it. (After all, the book is going to released into the wilds come October 31, right?)

I wanted to share what I learned through this experience with others who may be trying to save a character from a burning book before just hitting DELETE on the whole thing. I asked some other author friends to loan me their two cents on the topic, too. So, here are five actionable tips on how to keep the baby when it’s time to dash the bathwater.

Ready to read some more? Head on over to Writers Digest for the full article. And until next week, happy writing!

Query Letter Tips with Paul Lucas

Guys, the conference this year was great.  I got to see old buddies, make new buddies, and learn new stuff about the industry’s past and present. I was awarded a grant, and declared the guild’s Writer of the Year- now doesn’t that sound fancy! I also had a very helpful manuscript review, and then a quick query letter review. Everyone is always so generous with their time at these things!

PLucasThe presenters were also very generous with their knowledge, and so we’ll have three weeks of conference lessons this time around. This week’s post is based on a query letter workshop with literary agent Paul Lucas, who works for Janklow & Newbit Associates.

For context, keep in mind that Mr. Lucas’ work day often looks something like this: 100ish emails- per day!- to writers, editors, colleagues, etc; meeting with editors; on the phone with editors; internal meetings with colleagues; researching to keep abreast of industry news; and going through queries. (He tends to do his manuscript reading after work or on weekends. The guy gets no rest.)

Queries are important. Queries are (usually) how agents find new talent and sign new authors. But agents are super super busy folks, so a query has to really stand out to make any noise in all that daily cacophony.

Here are some basic tips that Mr. Lucas shared on helping your query to make the cut:

Be polite. Don’t be crazy.

A query should have three things: who you are, why you’re writing this agent, and what the book is about. If something in your query is not one of those three things, axe it.

Never mention others who liked the book. (The only exception to this would be an author or editor who will endorse the book with a short blurb.)

Edit, edit, edit. (Side note: I got called out for an intentional fragment sentence, which Mr. Lucas feels is always a bad thing. I made a squinchy face of disagreement, but he’s the pundit, not me. So maybe stare at those stylistic choices long and hard before hitting send.)

Follow agency submission rules. Always. No exceptions. No squinchy face.

Specify age range, genre, and word count.

Keep comp titles within five years of publication. (I’ve heard other agents who suggest no more than two years.) Don’t use megastars or absolute nobodies; look for recent comps that sold 10k-ish.

Be succinct. Queries should never run longer than a single page.

Be specific. Name awards in your bio. Describe why a certain book is a good comp. Tell why you chose this agent to query.

Queries are hard, and way less fun than drafting the next book in that bubblegum space opera you’ve been working on, but they’re vital to getting your work eventually seen and published. Work to make sure that your query is intriguing and reflective of your writing style in each of the three sections Mr. Lucas mentioned: why you’re writing this agent (hook), what the book is about (blurb), and who you are (bio).

Once you think you have a good query, run it past several pairs of eyes before sending it out to literary agents. Workshops are great because you can get instant feedback from several people, but if you don’t have access to a group, send it out to several writer friends for their opinions. When you are ready to submit to agents, do it in batches so that you can incorporate any feedback you might get in order to hone your query down to its best possible form.

Finally, if you are getting feedback on your submission packet, keep sending it out to as many agents as you can find who are good fits. But if you’re only hearing crickets, consider making major alterations or moving on to a new project after fifty ignored queries. Either way, don’t get discouraged. Querying is difficult, but a necessary bump on the road of traditional publishing. Don’t give up on your dream.

Next week, we’ll get into more details for query letters and first pages with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency. Until then, happy writing!

Mid-Race Regrets

My father-in-law is an amazing athlete. I am… somewhat less amazing. But I’ve actually felt like I’ve been pretty good about exercising this summer. (You know, until I exploded my leg at least.) I was bike commuting to work every day. I practiced rugby twice a week. I even did a few crunches once in a while! Not too shabby!

Earlier this summer, Hubby and I were gearing up for our annual Midnight Sun Run with Dad, and I was dumb enough to express confidence in my abilities this year. My sweet darling laughed in my face and reminded me that I hadn’t done any long distance running since, oh, the last time we did the Sun Run. You know, two years ago.

“But I’m fit!” I protested. “I do all the things!”

Apparently not all the right things. He didn’t argue that I was in possibly the best shape of my life. He merely argued that I was working all the wrong muscles. That I didn’t have the stamina. That I’d start off at a quick trot and then be sucking wind and puking by the end.

Bah! I thought. I’ll show him!

Why does he always have to be right? Why can’t I be the right one once in a while?

I don’t know if it’s just because I have an incurable case of lit brain, but I find that there are many correlations between my writing life and my everything-else life.

This last month, in case you didn’t notice from the discernable uptick of stupidity and laziness around here, was a NaNo month. *waves tiny flag* And I had every confidence that I was gonna throat punch that puny word goal into the Stone Age. Because, come on, I’d been working on writing stuff every day this entire year with like three exceptions. Like three! How can you be more ready than that?

But it occurred to me right around Week Two that the writing I had been doing wasn’t necessarily good draft-like-crazy-for-a-month prep sort of writing. A lot of the writing I had been doing was things like taking setting notes, or drafting out blog posts, or editing second or third drafts, or popping out a piece of flash fiction. The truth was, I hadn’t drafted a new full-length novel since last November.

Much like my running race, I felt that lack of training pretty badly toward the end. I mean, I still throat punched the word goal, although maybe not quite to the Stone Age, but it required a lot more oomph that I thought it was going to.

I’m not saying that I regret those other styles of writing projects I’ve been working on this year. I don’t. After all, if I never paused in my drafting frenzy, I’d a) have nothing but a bunch of embarrassing first drafts sitting around, b) not have won short story contests or placed other shorts for publication, and c) have gone stark raving mad from the whirlwind of writing so much, so quickly, for so long.

But I think next time, I’ll set aside my other projects just a little sooner and work myself back up to fighting form. After all, during Camp sessions, I have the option of scaling back my daily word goals; I don’t have that choice in November. And as much as I struggled to write an average of 900 words a day last month, 1700 would be exceedingly difficult.

So what can I do to make sure that I’m ready for writing come this fall? Well, for starters, I’ve reinstituted writing daily- new words, not just editing old ones. It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction, or all from the same project, but it does have to be new. Currently, I’m only requiring 500 a day of myself, but I’ll start to up that more as we get closer to November. (I know not everyone goes in for a daily wordcount. Some folks like to put in a certain amount of time, or energy, or however they gauge themselves. I just find that counting words works best for me. You do you.)

Another thing I want to do is to put in more preparation in the form of outlining. I think one of the things that made the end of the month so difficult was that I really jumped into the project with little more than an idea for an opening scenario. I had absolutely zilch planned out for anything past like chapter four. I used to write like this all the time, but I’ve found in my old age that the speed and the quality of my drafts go up considerably when I have a solid framework laid out beforehand. (If you want to argue that with me, I’m currently drafting a post comparing and contrasting pantsing and planning and would love your input! Shoot me an email or hit me up in the comments!)

Finally, I need to start setting aside more time for writing again. I’ve given myself about half the writing time that I had before and, although I’ve worked at using that time more efficiently, I still need more time to hit those higher goals.

So that’s my big plan! If my sixty-something father-in-law can straight up curb stomp me in every single race we’ve ever run together (while smiling and holding a conversation no less), I can put in the time and the training to get good at writing again. Hi-ya! *high kicks off a bench*

*breaks leg*

Rivals, Villains, and Nemeses

VillainFond Husband and I were talking the other night about antagonists. We’re both way into speculative fiction, but our tastes can vary pretty widely on what we like and don’t like. Therefore, I wasn’t too shocked when I learned that he doesn’t like a sympathetic villain. Personally, I love it when I feel like I can understand the bad guy, when I know exactly why they are the way they are and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have walked that same path in those same shoes. (Note: I am not a sociopath. Honest.)

One thing we did agree on, though? Neither of us likes it when the antagonist is just contrary to be contrary. The mustache twirling villain tossing hapless maidens onto train tracks for the heck of it isn’t really our thing. Evil for evil’s sake is kind of lame. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about physical antagonists, not abstract ones. None of this really applies as well for a storm, or racism, or whatever.)

So I sat down after our chat and wrote up a list of the things that I feel like every believable antagonist needs, regardless of whether or not we can sympathize.

Background A protagonist can’t exist in a vacuum; neither can the antagonist. What made them this way? How did they get where they are? Just as a protagonist’s background sets the stage for them, so does an antagonist’s.

Personality Every character in a story should have a unique voice, little ticks and quirks and patterns that make them their own person, rather than just another place holder. I feel like this is especially important in the main characters, which I would definitely count the antagonist as.

Motivation This is huge huge huge for me. The antagonist must have an understandable goal. Even if it’s just to stay in power, despite the efforts of this punk protagonist, I have to know why the villain does what they do for me to feel like this is a real character. Cardboard does not have motives. Characters do. I feel like this is especially important in cases where the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, like when the Lawful Good cop is trying to arrest the sketchy-but-heart-of-gold protagonist or whatever.

Menace This probably doesn’t really need to be said, but let’s say it anyway. An antagonist should be menacing. Readers should harbor some serious fear that the antagonist is going to really mess things up for our beloved protagonist, whether that’s ruining prom or enslaving humanity. Within the context of the story, stakes need to be high, and it needs to look like the antagonist just may tip them in their favor.

Power A power imbalance must exist between the antagonist and the protagonist in order for the protagonist to go through the kind of struggle that makes a good story. The story’s bad guy should stand on a higher power rung in some way (wealth, an army, powerful connections, whatevs), but on the other hand, they don’t need to be some über-powered demigod. Therefore, they also need…

Weaknesses Sauron’s tether to the Ring. Swarm’s entirely understandable difficulty with insecticides. The Emperor’s acceptance of a Death Star that has a design flaw you could fly an X-Wing through. If a powerful antagonist doesn’t have a weakness, it can make any ending where they lose feel implausible, and therefore a cheap plot push on the author’s part. So give your antagonist a weakness that is believable given their background, not so outrageous that they wouldn’t have taken care of it, and just enough of an edge that your protagonist can use it.

In closing, do you notice anything about this list? It’s pretty similar to the sorts of things that go into making a protagonist. In a lot of ways, the villain of the story is a lot like the hero; the two can be the flipsides of the same coin, even at times sharing remarkably similar features, but having simply made different choices. Because, after all, the antagonist is the hero in their own story.

Of course, there’s a lot more that can go into the crafting of a believable antagonist, but this is hopefully enough to get you started on a shiver-worthy baddie.  Happy writing!

 

Wanna dive deeper? Here are a few links to other articles about antagonists! Enjoy!

Ken Miyamoto’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know– all about the different tropes that most evil-doers fall under

Literary Device’s Antagonist– terms and definitions within the broad umbrella of, you guessed it, antagonists

Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Antagonists– it’s, uh, what the title says it is