Nancy: Damn Fine Story Advice: Story Stakes

If you hang out with writers long enough, observe them in their natural habitat, and learn what keeps them up at night, at some point you’re bound to hear a discussion about what writers like/are able/can bring themselves to read when they’re deeply immersed in their own stories. Books inside their writing genre? Outside the genre? No books at all during certain stages o the process?

These days, I’m rarely ‘not writing’ (not to be confused with procrastinating – that I do aplenty!), so a writing-driven reading moratorium won’t work for me. But I tend to read like I write: a little bit of everything and more than story at a time. Lately, I’ve been drawn to non-fiction. Per usual, I’m geeking out on science-for-non-scientists books. But this weekend I put down Stephen Hawking and picked up some Chuck Wendig (with no segue, rhyme, or reason because my mind is a mysterious, scary, mess of a place).

If you’re not familiar with Wendig, you really must check out his blog, where he generously doles out  amazing advice, life observations, movie reviews, and the occasional recipe (although I am not going to try this one). For a more distilled collection of his story-specific guidance, I highly recommend Damn Fine StoryIt made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me…Okay, what it actually did was make me think, but don’t let that scare you away from it – it’s thinking in a fun way! As with all writing advice, he implores his readers to take what they need and leave the rest for another time, place, or writer. And this weekend, what I needed was a deep, thorough look at story stakes.

How to Torture Your Characters and Still Respect Yourself in the Morning

It’s time for a true confession here on the blog: I am terrible creating good, strong, escalating story stakes. I never get it right in the first draft, and usually don’t quite get there in the second or third round, either. I can only surmise that I want to protect my characters, make their journeys as painless as possible, allow them to avoid the really hard choices and terrible conflicts. But that flies in the face of what story actually is, of what it does for us as readers. As Wendig, and Lisa Cron, and name-your-favorite-writing-teacher-here will tell you, story is conflict. It’s through watching characters fight through conflict with ever-worsening results, with ever-deepening concerns, with escalating stakes, that we as readers connect to the story and, ultimately, learn something about ourselves.

We talk about rising action. We talk about character growth and change. We talk about chasing protagonists up trees and shooting at them. These are all ways of saying there must be something at stake for the character, and as the character walks down their story path, that thing not only stays with them, it becomes bigger and badder and more important for All the Reasons. And yes, Virginia, this will require that you do bad things to your characters to force them to make hard choices and fight the good fight. But take heart. That doesn’t make you a masochist. It makes you a writer.

The Characters Made Me Do It

In addition to making peace with the need to cause my characters’ pain, I’m taking proactive steps to bake that into my stories from the beginning, or least much earlier in the process. One of the things I’ve started to do in the past year, motivated by Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book and class, is to develop every aspect of my stories through the lens of my characters. I usually have a very vague and general idea about the ‘what’ of my story – what will happen, what a few plot points are, what general direction the journey will take. But if I go down the plot development hole and try to develop my conflict inflection points and story stakes and character actions reactions to fit that plot, I’m multiple drafts into the story before I even approach the level of escalation my characters need to grow.

As Wendig so colorfully says in his book and on his blog, “[s]tory is Soylent Green. It’s made out of people.” If you want a story to mean something, to connect with readers, to feel natural and real, you have to keep it true to who the characters are, what they can and cannot do, and who they can and do become by the end of the story, through all that torture and those rising stakes you have to inflict upon them.

Escalating Stakes Versus Changing Stakes

So, while reading Damn Fine Story and Wendig’s discussion of stakes, which he defines as “that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected”, I ran across this nugget somewhere around location 661 on my Kindle version, and it really resonated with me: “A complication can raise the stakes, or it can change them.” (Emphasis mine.)

As an example of stakes being raised, he uses the movie Die Hard, walking the reader through protagonist John McClane’s escalating problem. First, McClane’s focused on saving his marriage, as that’s what’s at risk. Then terrorists attack his wife’s office building, and in addition to losing the marriage, he and his wife could lose their lives. Later, with all those possible losses still in play, the story adds in a threat to their children – now their entire family could be lost.

But what if there’s not a so much a straight, rising line of more dire potential losses piling up on the preceding ones? What if, partway through the story, the protagonist stands to lose something else, entirely, than when his journey started? While that might seem like parsing words – after all, the risk to McClane’s family’s lives is different from the risk of losing his marriage – they are, to use a term of art, of a piece. But in the next example Wendig uses, Luke Skywalker’s journey in Star Wars, he expounds on the concept of changing stakes.

Early in the story, Luke is focused on defeating the Evil Empire and its personification in Darth Vader. When Luke realizes Vader is his father, the stakes change, and instead of saving the rebel cause against the Empire, he needs to save his father. Then things go sideways and he learns his friend Leia, who is really his sister, is in danger, and he will have to turn on Vader/his father again because the new stakes are his sister’s life. So, to recap, Luke’s path goes from fight Vader/the Empire and save the rebels, to protect Vader and save what might be left of his father, to fight Vader and save his sister. In this case, the escalation, the sense of rising threat, comes from the journey getting ever more personal for Luke, going from abstract rebel cause to concrete family tie (long-lost father), and finally to family tie plus deep connection (long-lost sister and now compatriot).

Why did this point resonate so deeply with me? I realized that this changing stakes scenario better describes my first-draft WIP than a straight escalation trajectory. At the midpoint of my story, my protagonist learns that everything she’s been working toward, that one thing she absolutely must have, her MacGuffin, is no longer an option for her. But she’s on a journey, she’s headed somewhere, and if she won’t have that MacGuffin to get her there, she’ll need something else. And so begins the next part of her story, with her goal transformed, and – more importantly – different and even more important things at stake for her.

I’m kicking off my writing week with a deep dive into my protagonist’s changing (but still necessarily escalating!) stakes in the hopes that I’m getting it right this time. Do you find it easy to torture your characters? And have you checked in with them lately to make sure they’re suffering enough?

2 thoughts on “Nancy: Damn Fine Story Advice: Story Stakes

  1. For the past few months, I’ve been thinking about soap operas, or telenovelas. The stakes here often change, as you describe, sometimes in crazy and delightful ways. Heroine wants to marry the hero . . . but then finds out he’s her twin brother!! And they must find their mother, who has been kidnapped by a drug cartel, headed by a wicked but handsome and brooding drug lord who graduated from Harvard. Love interest shifts; goals shift; stakes go in a different direction.

    There are a couple of problems with this method of storytelling for me. First, people do tend to make fun of it. (But they can suck it! Right?) Second, it demands a certain amount of nimbleness of wit. I don’t believe I could plan/create all the twists, but I need the smarts and flexibility to recognize, while writing, that a connection could be made.

    In soap operas, just like any serial story, the arc needs to hang at some point; there’s always going to be another episode as long as readers/watchers are there, so there always needs to be a cliffhanger at the end of the story. Preferrably, more than one. And these perpetually hanging arcs can cause a lot of problems with catching up new readers/watchers, and also just coming to a satisfying end. Only if you get notice of cancellation in a timely fashion can you wrap things up properly. And for many readers, a satisfying ending is so important.

  2. Chuck is awesome. I also have a changing stakes moment in my story. Reading Damn Fine Story was one of the better craft books, IMHO. Really helped me figure out how to change the trajectory without mucking up the story.

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