Who cares? That's a question all novelists must repeat, over and over, as they write. Is there enough going on to make the readers care about what happens? What does the lead character stand to lose if he doesn't solve the central problem of the novel? Is that enough?
Essential elements of a page turner include a character worth following, a problem that must be solved and stakes that climb higher and higher.
There are three aspects of stakes that you should consider: those flowing from plot, character and society.
Plot-driven commercial fiction needs to have large stakes, something that's a threat to the lead character from the outside. Almost always this is in the form of another person trying to do the lead harm—physically, emotionally or professionally.
In Jack Schaefer's Western, Shane, the invading homesteaders in 1889 Wyoming are feuding with the longstanding ranchers, led by Luke Fletcher. Fletcher wants the homesteaders off what he considers his cattle range, and the homesteaders, led by Joe Starrett, want to stay. Both values are worth fighting for, and a loss by either side will have a severe impact on a number of people.
Tensions rise until a fight breaks out between Shane—a man hired by Starrett—and Fletcher's men. Starrett intervenes to help, and the fight is won.
Starrett's son, Bob, the narrator of the story, thinks the fight means that Fletcher is finished. But his father explains:
Fletcher's gone too far to back out now. It's a case of now or never with him. If he can make us run, he'll be setting pretty for a long stretch. If he can't, it'll be only a matter o' time before he's shoved smack out of this valley.
Shortly after the fight, a gunfighter named Wilson arrives in town "carrying two guns, big capable forty-fives, in holsters slung fairly low and forward."
So now the stakes have been raised to the highest level—this conflict is going to end with somebody dead.
Stakes can also be raised in a plot by arraying an ever-stronger opposition force against the lead.
Early in James Grippando's The Pardon, Jack Swyteck, a lawyer, is being threatened by a man who may be a killer. The stakes are raised when the man murders Jack's former client and sets Jack up as the prime suspect.
Now Jack doesn't have to deal with one man. He's got the police force and prosecutor's office after him as well.
Naturally, the threat of death is high stakes. But note that the "death" can be professional in nature. The down-and-out lawyer who gets one final case to redeem himself; the disgraced cop who has one last chance to do it right—these are examples of those who must win or die in the world they know.
At some point during your plotting, whether you outline extensively or fly by the seat of your pants, ask yourself questions like these:
- What physical harm can come to my lead? How far can I take that threat?
- What new forces can charge in to oppose my lead? What other characters can I introduce who will make things worse overall? How might these opposition forces operate? What tactics would they use?
- Is there some professional duty at stake here? What's the worst thing that can happen to my lead's career life?
What goes on inside a character can be just as important as what happens outside. In literary fiction, the stress is usually on this inner aspect. But the question is the same—what problem is big enough to make readers care?
In J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, the danger to the lead, Holden Caulfield, is not physical but psychological. He needs to find a reason to live in a world occupied primarily by what he deems "phonies." When he leaves his prep school and begins an odyssey through New York City, it's an obvious quest for meaning.
The psychological stakes are raised as the story moves along. We know from the intensifying language just how perilous this inner search is. "I swear to God I'm a madman," Holden says at one point. And by the end of the book, he may just be.
But inner stakes are not for literary novelists alone. They can also add dimension to commercial novels. In The Pardon, Grippando raises the psychological stakes for a subplot character. Jack's estranged father is the governor of the state. When it looks like Jack could be convicted of capital murder, the law-and-order governor will have to decide whether to issue a pardon, at the cost of his political life. It's a deeply personal anguish.
Ponder questions like this to get inside your characters:
- How can things get more emotionally wrenching for my lead? What does she care about most? What threatens her spirit?
- Is there someone the lead cares about who can get caught up in the trouble?
- Are there dark secrets from the past that are threatening to be revealed? What must the lead hide from others at all costs?
When large, social trauma bubbles up, it can add a huge layer of complication to the lead's woes. The reader will wonder whether the lead's personal problems will worsen because of the dire conditions in her immediate world.
Consider Scarlett O'Hara, whose desire is to get Ashley Wilkes to marry her. The first part of Gone With the Wind is built around her scheme to get Ashley alone at the big barbecue at Twelve Oaks, declare her love and receive his troth in return.
Her plan fails. Not only does Ashley refuse to leave Melanie, but Scarlett's secret is found out by an eavesdropping Rhett Butler.
Now what to do? As Scarlett considers her setback, explosive news hits the party: War has begun. Now Ashley, along with all the other young men of the county, will be going off to fight. (Hint: Whenever war breaks out, stakes are likely raised!)
Now, Scarlett is going to face all the challenges of a woman on the home front, even as she continues to obsess about Ashley.
Want more turmoil for your hero? Consider these points:
- What are the social aspects of the story that swirl around the characters? Is there some community or world issue that's boiling? Can you invent one?
- What new characters can you come up with to line up on either side of the big picture?
Go for broke
Stephanie Grace Whitson, while writing Secrets on the Wind, discovered the stakes were higher for a secondary character, and so rewrote the book to give him more prominence.
All three aspects of raised stakes are present in Whitson's story of this U.S. Army soldier in 1878. He's faced with being ordered by his commanding officer to do something he finds personally despicable. If he refuses, it could mean professional death, because he wants a life in the military. Emotionally, he may be losing the woman he loves as her life is threatened by a difficult birth (she's an unwed mother with whom he's fallen in love). And while these two things are swirling around, the Cheyenne Outbreak occurs—threatening not only the order of his world but his very life in battle.
The book has it all, because Whitson thought up trouble on all fronts.
To get your novels to that next level of stakes, train yourself to think of even deeper tribulations for your lead. Get really mean. Using questions like the ones in this article, create a list of things that can go wrong for your poor character. Stretch yourself here.
Next, take your list of answers and sort them by their degree of trouble, from least to worse. As a general rule, you want trouble to increase as the story moves along.
You now have a "stakes outline," which can be used to formulate scenes and turning points for your novel.
Of course you don't have to use every bit of trouble you think of, nor the biggest. But at least with the stakes outline, you'll have a packed storehouse of material to access when you need it.
This article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Writer's Digest.