Friday, 9 July 2010

Raising the Stakes

In some ways, thriller writers have it easy. The stakes tend to be large - baddie seeks world domination and to murder everyone who stands in their way. Baddies tend to be ruthless people who will stop at nothing, and the only person standing in their way is the main character. Cue 400 pages of breakneck speed prose.

But what if the sort of book we're writing dictates a smaller scale, perhaps a something a bit more domestic. The baddie may be someone the main character loved once, or loves now, or perhaps there isn't a baddie at all, just people going about their muddled lives. The stakes aren't going to involve world domination, the stakes may be as nebulous as trying to find happiness.

There are several ways of raising the stakes here.

1. Add a moral dilemma. Give your characters two options to choose from, both of which are have plusses and minuses. For example, the dilemma at the heart of Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper - is it OK to have a baby when your main reason is the hope that the child will be an organ donor match for a sick older sibling? And what happens if they don't want to be a donor?

2. Make it really, really matter to the main character because it symbolises something else - for example all those family squabbles over some inconsequential piece of china left in a will which are really about Mother loved me more.

3. Go beyond reader expectations - in other words, make the situation far far worse than anticipated. If you have a casual affair and then dump your lover, they might hate you, but most of us would expect that. What you'd not expect is that they'd boil your children's bunny.

I'm sure there are as many ways of raising the stakes as there are characters in novels. The main thing is to work out what the stakes are for your characters, and then see if there's some way you can make them higher.

At last! I've got my finger out and have committed to running some day courses:
Writing a Novel - 31st July in Bath and 18th September in Truro
Getting a Novel Published - 1st August in Bath and 19th September in Truro
Contact me on for more info...

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