Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pet Peeve: Low Stakes

Last night, I promised more posts on trends that mark a first book as an author's debut. Yesterday was about clichés. Today, I thought I'd talk about low-stakes writing.

The stakes in a book constitute what's at risk if the characters fail. In a first-person narrative, threatening the character's life isn't going to convince the reader, because obviously the person is alive to tell the story. There is a way around that, and I can get to that in a later post. In most stories, though, the character doesn't risk only death for failure. Often financial or career ruin are at stake, or harm to someone that character cares deeply about. The danger of being shunned or dubbed a pariah can serve as a powerful motivator for many characters, and sometimes the stakes are as simple as seeing a person or a place again. The best narratives weave in several motivations for the characters, and so we're rooting for the character to reach the end victorious.

And then there are the narratives where the author wants to let you know everything will be okay. It's like that scene in The Princess Bride (the movie, not the book) where the grandfather stops in the middle of an exciting scene to assure the sick boy that Princess Buttercup survives. The scene serves to show that the boy's gaining interest in the tale and getting more invested in the story, but his frustration is palpable. And for good reason. You don't want to learn everything will be okay until you know how that comes about. The only way to get there is by reading through the solution.

If the author frets over our stress levels and assures us it'll turn out all right, though, out goes the tension. Readers are pulled along by the question, "And then what happened?" If it doesn't matter what happens next, the tension is lost, and a person's just slogging through paragraphs and pages and chapters for no reason except that it's there. Do you really think a person is going to do that when there are literally thousands of books that do pull a reader through the narrative?

To keep the stakes high, the characters must be challenged. They must deal with several conflicts at once, all tied to their personal motivations. If you introduce a conflict that's going to serve as a barrier to success, don't solve it halfway through, or even three-quarters of the way in. Stretch out that question all the way until the end.

If you can't do that smoothly, you may want to consider tossing out that subplot altogether and coming up with something else. Because plots shouldn't function as speed bumps.

Now, there are narrative structures which allow for the solving of some subplots along the way, and which end up helping the character with the solution. That's different, and should be treated as such. But if, at the end of your story, you don't feel like your character is straining against several forces conspiring against him or her, you've robbed your reader of time and emotional investment, and probably made that reader reluctant to pick up your second book.

Not every book can have the fate of the world hanging in the balance. But, if you sling your words right, you'll have your reader feeling like it's the end of the their world if your characters don't succeed.

6 comments:

  1. That was something that always bugged me about Eddings' books, they killed tension, because after a book or two you worked out that they were never going to let anything really bad happen to their main characters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's always disappointing. There are plenty of ways to raise the stakes, provided your writing hasn't stagnated.

      I haven't read any of Eddings' books, and I hadn't planned to. I'm certainly not apt to, now.

      Delete
  2. The Belgariad isn't a bad entry into the field, but they unfortunately (David is credited solo for most of the early work, but he always collaborated with his wife Leigh) never really progressed beyond that, and because the work sold they never seemed to feel the need to do so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's too bad. I hate it when something has such promise, and then it fizzles.

      Delete
  3. I've read The Belgariad, The Mallorean, and even the prequel Belgarath the Sorcerer. You always know what's going to happen long before it does happen. I enjoyed reading them anyway. It was like rereading a book I'd already read, and enjoying it as much the second time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm. It's not really my favorite kind of reading experience. If I want to know what happens, I'll just write it, myself.

      Delete