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How to Create Moral Stakes in Your Fiction

We experience life as feelings. Yet, so much fiction is written to minimize feelings or leave them out altogether. It's as if emotions are not a fit subject or writing about them is too simplistic. Even fiction that celebrates feelings, romance for instance, can sometimes work with only a limited and familiar emotional palette. We can wallow in emotional content yet feel curiously empty.

It doesn't have to be that way. The emotional experience of a story, both for characters and for readers, can be far richer than it often is. In the following excerpt from Donald Maass's upcoming The Emotional Craft of Fiction, you'll learn the importance of using moral stakes to create an emotional response or experience for a reader. And you'll find some exercises to develop such stakes in your own fiction.

Every fiction-writing guide offers its own set of beliefs, techniques, and methods for crafting a novel, developed from the values a particular instructor deems necessary for powerful prose. But while writers might disagree over showing versus telling or plotting versus pantsing, none would argue this: If you want to write strong fiction, you must make your readers feel. The reader's experience must be an emotional journey that aligns with your characters' struggles, discoveries, and triumphs.

emotion, fiction, stakes, moral

That's where The Emotional Craft of Fiction comes in. Veteran literary agent and expert fiction instructor Donald Maass shows you how to connect readers—viscerally and emotionally—to your characters and your story. You'll learn how to create an emotional response through showing and telling, develop a moving narration style, understand reader expectations for a character, and more. Readers can simply read a novel ... or they can experience it. If you want to give your readers an experience, start by conjuring vivid, authentic emotion on the page.

The Moral Stakes of Your Novel

We tend to think of Western culture as a postmodern wasteland: amoral, materialistic, self-aggrandizing, and dogmatic. The truth is that we all yearn for a better world, one filled with compassion, respect, justice, opportunity, equality, and freedom. You can see this in politics. Conservatives and liberals both want a better world, even though they seek different roads to achieve it. You can see this in beliefs. Both followers of faith and rational scientists seek purity and truth. You can see this in cultures. People of all backgrounds value family, community, and shared customs. Human beings are good.

Given the universal hope for what is high and right, it’s surprising to me that characters in fiction so often have their eyes fixed on the ground. Their focus is on what is immediately in front of them, as if the current plot complication is all that matters. I am not against giving plot problems greater personal meaning; indeed, I teach a method of raising personal stakes, which develops just that. Equally important, though, are a story’s moralstakes.

The Moral Character

What happens when a protagonist doesn’t act virtuously? What is lost? Unfortunately, what’s lost is readers’ respect for the protagonist. That’s crucial because whether or not your protagonist is a good person matters to readers. It’s the first thing they look for and a prerequisite for their involvement in your story. Antiheroes and dark protagonists would seem to be an exception, but not really. When they work it’s a trick. Dark characters we care about secretly signal something to us. However bad they may seem, underneath they are good.

It’s important to signal to readers that a character is good, and you should do so early in the book. One obvious method is to save the cat, the screenwriters’ technique of showing small demonstrations of worthiness. Fiction employs a greater range of such signals, many based in self-awareness. Even miserable characters who demonstrate a glimmer of wry humor, a sharp eye, or a strong voice can win us over, at least for a little while, since we trust that someone who is observant, alert, and self-aware has the potential to become good.

That said, nothing builds reader involvement more surely than a character whose moral struggle pervades the tale. When readers hope, beg, and plead with you to let a character turn toward the light, you have readers where you want them. A character who is good is good; a character whom we want to be good is even better.

Not just any dark, miserable protagonist will trigger that feeling in us, though. To hold out hope for a protagonist, we must first feel that there is something to hope for. Struggle is the key. Trying to be good is at least trying. Other characters can also stand in for us, having unearned faith in a character whom everyone else in the story has little reason to trust.

The arc of moral change isn’t complete when change itself arrives. An insight gained, an understanding reached, the end of inner conflict, or the arrival of inner peace are fine, but there is one more step: proof. When a person has changed, we can see it. A selfish person turns selfless. An inward person looks outward. For authors, it’s a kind of giving back. When inner peace has arrived, it’s time for a transformed character to put good into the world.

Example: The Double Bind

The literary thrillers of Chris Bohjalian are enviable. They pull off what every author would like to do: make a suspenseful story without resorting to the FBI, nuclear terrorism, serial killers, or other familiar devices. They are about regular people whose stories are nevertheless thrilling page-turners.

Bohjalian’s The Double Bind (2007) goes one better by employing a literary conceit: The story is set in a slightly alternate reality in which the West Egg and tragic events of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are presumed to have actually happened.

In our own times, Laurel Estabrook, a social worker at a Vermont homeless shelter, curates a collection of highly artistic photographs left in a box by a mentally ill and now deceased resident, Bobbie Crocker. Among the shots of midcentury celebrities, jazz artists, and Greenwich Village in its heyday are pictures of a place Laurel recognizes: West Egg (where she grew up) and the Gatsby Mansion, whose ugly romantic history still overshadows her hometown.

However, there is an even more disturbing photograph in Bobbie Crocker’s collection. It’s a recent picture of a country road in a nearby Vermont town, a female cyclist in the distance. Laurel recognizes the cyclist as herself and the road as the one she cycled down the day she was raped, mutilated, and nearly abducted. The photograph was taken shortly before the attack.

Unhinged by this discovery, Laurel becomes convinced that Bobbie Crocker and his photographs hold the key to why she was attacked, and that there is a connection back to West Egg and the Buchanan family. Indeed there is a connection, but Crocker’s family secrets prove a fresh, potent danger to the already damaged Laurel.

Laurel’s regular life goes on with her older boyfriend (newspaper editor David Fuller), her fast-living theology student roommate (Talia), and their well-meaning and smitten rooming-house neighbor (Whit), whose attempts to invite Laurel on a cycling date are comically clueless. It’s Whit who provides a lesson in moral transformation. One summer night he, Laurel, Talia, and a group of college friends go dancing. On the way home they come upon a reeking homeless transient, unkempt, unwashed, covered with sores, and whispering to himself. The group moves to pass by, but …

Laurel went right to him. She squatted before him and got his attention. Asked him his name and told him hers. She certainly didn’t pull him completely from his own planet back to theirs, but while Whit and Eva had stood unmoving and mute, fearful, Laurel was taking his hand in hers—and Whit understood clearly that taking the soiled hand of a transient was an act both of mercy and of bravery—and leading him to his feet. Laurel told them that they should go on ahead, but they didn’t. They went with her as she escorted the man to the shelter. There were beds left because it was summer and the homeless can endure a lot longer outside, and with the night manager’s help she got him showered and fed, and then she convinced him to sleep inside that night. It took her about an hour to get him settled. The fellow didn’t talk to the rest of them. He really didn’t say a whole lot to Laurel. But he stopped his murmuring and his eyes no longer darted like the orbs in a pinball machine. They locked on to Laurel’s, and it was clear he felt safe around her. Whatever conspiracies were after him, whatever delusions had led him to the street, momentarily they were checked.

When Laurel rejoined Eva and Whit, she apologized for costing them an hour of sleep, and the three of them resumed their walk up the hill. Whit was shaken both by the stink and the utter hopelessness of the fellow Laurel had brought in from the street and by his first view of the inside of the shelter. But after four years there, plus her time as a volunteer, Laurel, he saw, had thought nothing of it.

And he, in turn, was left not merely smitten. He was awed.

Whit’s not the only one who’s impressed. Acts of courage and generosity have the power to change us, even when they’re made up. Bohjalian’s purpose in including this scene might be to explain why Whit is smitten with Laurel or to show that the damaged Laurel has compassion for the also damaged homeless, or to reassure us that even though Laurel is obsessed with Bobbie Crocker’s photographs, she remains normal and anchored in her work.

Any of those would be good enough reasons to include this scene in his novel, but Bohjalian also uses it to crack open our hearts a bit more. A demonstration of goodness and care will do that. Laurel’s generosity is inspiring, especially considering that she herself is a survivor. More than that, naïve Whit is transformed by her act of courage and loves her more, so that we can, too.

(Incidentally, if you should read The Double Bind, hang on for one of the most astonishing trick endings in recent fiction. It’s a doozy.)

Exercises for Moral Stakes:

  • Identify a higher emotion you’d like your readers to feel: self-control, courage, perseverance, truthfulness, fairness, respect, generosity, forgiveness, service, sacrifice, discernment, integrity, humility, readiness, or wisdom.
  • Choose a character whose nature is, or whom you can make, the opposite of this quality. Who most needs to learn this lesson, see a truth, adopt this virtue, and change?
  • Prepare the groundwork for change. Give this character every reason to be the opposite of what he will become. Reinforce that that opposite way of being works and is the right way to be. Find a way to show that at the start.
  • Create three events that both build the necessity of change and necessary reasons to resist it. These events are the anticipation phase.
  • Finally, create the event that will bring home to your character the better way of being. How can this character show us her better self? This is the moment when you will stir higher emotion in your readers.

About the Author

Donald Maass founded the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York in 1980. His agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of The Career Novelist (1996), Writing the Breakout Novel (2001), Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook (2004), The Fire in Fiction (2009), The Breakout Novelist (2011), and Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012). He is a past president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc.

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