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.
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.