I'm antsy today, having to wait to announce some good news, so until then, here's a post I originally wrote last summer for the Romance Writer's Revenge blog. I hope you enjoy it!
Every story needs stakes, the higher the better.
It took me a while to understand this concept. A long time ago, when an agent called to talk with me about one of my manuscripts, she said my stakes were about a 4.7, and I needed to ratchet them up to an 11. I realized I was striving to give my characters a breezy, conflict-free life filled with rainbows and lollipops, which is understandable, except it makes for a less-than-compelling story.
When a story has high stakes, the characters have to make difficult choices. Each option has unbearable consequences, but with darn good reasons for being that way. Characters naturally want to go with the easy alternative, but they aren't allowed to, because there aren't any easy alternatives.
This provides built-in tension, and the reader stays around because he/she wants to know which impossible choice the character will ultimately make. If it's a choice the reader knows the character doesn't WANT to make, but HAS to, there is also built-in sympathy for the character.
I have an example of this from a TV show I watch, called Flashpoint, which is about a SWAT team in Canada (known as the "Strategic Response Unit", or SRU). I love the characters, and the way they joke about being important enough to wear the "cool pants", as well as their heroism and bravery in a variety of emotionally tough situations.
In one episode, the SRU team is desperately trying to stop a madman who is intent on blowing up the city, potentially harming hundreds of people. As one of the team members approaches the building where the suspect is hiding, he steps on a landmine.
It's easy to understand the awfulness of this scenario, even without seeing the character's response when he hears the click under his boot. There are definitely some high stakes here. If he lifts his foot, he blows up. Even though he is in tiptop physical shape, there's a certain limit to how long he can stay motionless in that one position.
After watching this show for many weeks, I've gotten used to this team getting themselves, and others, out of impossible situations. They are used to it, too, and they respond as they always do, not even worried about the outcome. One of the other team members is best friends with this guy, and the episode opened with them just back from a vacation together, laughing as they showed pics of their antics to the rest of the team.
The best friend races around trying to find ways to fix this horrible situation, and I'm on the edge of my seat fervently hoping it can work out. I tell myself the SRU team has proven time and time again they can rescue people from dire situations. I don't even want to consider the possibility that it won't work out. It has to work out, because I want everything to be okay for these people I care about.
However, it soon becomes clear that the available solutions aren't working. It's not possible to fix this, and everyone but the best friend acknowledges it--including the man standing on the land mine. He doesn't want to admit it, but he knows. And he's aware he has a decision to make, choosing between two horrifying possibilities.
He can lift his foot and be killed instantly.
Or he can stay put and let his best friend continue the risky maneuver of moving something on top of the land mine, in the remote hope that it will work and not blow up both of them.
Those are some Level 11 high stakes. The kind that have you wishing there was a Door #3 to choose instead.
However, high stakes don't always have to literally involve "life or death". In my characters' lives, "life or death" is a little different, with "life" being the new direction they take, and "death" being the end of the old life they hold on to so tightly, before they encountered the person they love and everything changed so drastically.
Still, high stakes come with an emotional cost, no matter which choice is made. That is what keeps us glued to the book, maniacally turning the pages, or tapping the screen, worried about the land mines threatening to detonate the characters' hearts. We have a stake in the outcome now, too, because we've invested our own emotions in the story.
So what kind of stakes have you given your characters? What choices do they face, and what are the consequences of each option? How do you make the stakes even higher?