Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.
Hello everyone! Friday is doughnut day at our house and, if I could, I'd pass the box around so we could all be chewing on sugary goodness while we chat writing. Alas! You'll have to track down your own munchies while we dive in.
Last week we started a new Friday series on creating tension in our stories. Today, we're continuing on by discussing the stakes.
In Jeff Gerke's book, The First Fifty Pages, he says, "There’s a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it."
This is a fantastic way to approach creating tension in your story. And if we dissect the thought a little bit, there are a couple questions we, as writers, must ask ourselves.
We've talked about this again and again here at Go Teen Writers, so forgive me if I'm beating a dead horse. BUT! It's that important. Your character must want something. And that something needs to be driving her forward. It's why she does what she does.
I know, I know--you know this part already. But have you stopped to consider this:
What happens if she fails?
This is where that fancy word comes in: stakes. What are the stakes? What are the consequences of not reaching that end goal? If you don't know the answer to that question, my guess is your story is lacking tension.
The stakes are usually set toward the beginning of the story. Novels aren't novels if there isn't an inciting incident, a point of no return. At this moment, the initial stakes are set and the main character cannot turn back. She will lose something important if she does.
But it's not enough to set the stakes that one time. You must continually raise them as the story moves forward. The cost of failure must climb throughout the course of your novel.
Shall we use Katniss as an example? Spoiler alert, guys.
In the Hunger Games, the stakes are laid out for us in the form of internal monologue. Katniss tells the reader all about the Hunger Games and the reaping, and she discusses the odds of her own name being drawn. By the time the children of District 12 are all lined up, we understand how desperate her family will be if they lose her to the games. At this point, the reader wants what Katniss wants: for her name not to be drawn. If it is, the consequences likely include death.
But when Prim's name is drawn, the unthinkable happens and Katniss willingly accepts those consequences if it keeps her sister safe. The reader understands that for the story to move forward, Katniss must go off to the games, but we're sent reeling once again when we find out just who will be accompanying our hero. Peeta, a boy Katniss feels indebted to.
The stakes have gone from horrifying to unimaginable because only one victor can survive the games. Will Katniss, who has already proven herself a willing sacrifice, die so Peeta can live?
As the story plunges forward, much to Katniss's chagrin, she makes friends with kids from other districts and the idea of killing them as part of a game makes the desperate task before her unendurable, and we, the readers, continue to feel the impossibility of her situation.
Author Suzanne Collins creates tension by continually telling Katniss, "No."
"I know you want to live peacefully, Katniss, but no. You have to fight."
"I know you want to keep everyone alive, Katniss, but no. You're going to have to choose."
"I know you'd rather die than kill a friend, but no. If you refuse to play the Capital's game, your sister and your mother will starve."
So, while there is THAT THING your character wants more than anything else, it can absolutely change as the story progresses. Other wants might creep in to--temporarily or permanently--trump that desire. We call that character growth. And it is a result of your character's adaptation to the obstacles thrown at her.
As the author of page-turning stories, you must get into the habit of telling your characters "No." Any little "yes" you hand out, must cost them something. I won't rehash try/fail cycles, but keep Jeff Gerke's advice in mind as you write.
Give your character and your readers something worth wanting, and then do your best to take it away. If your hero wants it bad enough, she'll fight you for it and your audience will thank you for writing a story chock-full of tension.
Think about the story you're working on now. How many times do you raise the stakes on your main characters? Are the consequences truly dire if they fail?