Raise the Stakes High (Making Readers Care and Building More Tension into Your Novel)

Have you ever quit reading a book part way through? I have a few times. It happens for varying reasons, but most likely, I think it comes down to finding yourself thinking Who Cares? My need to know what happens is so low that it is not worth the remaining 200 pages of this novel.

Bored-ReaderThe last thing I want is someone doing that with my novels!

On the other hand, what was the last book you simply could not put down? You found yourself reading at the bus stop, in between meetings under your desk, or wherever. We have all had books we could not put down. You’ve come to care so much about what happens that you have GOT-TO-FREAKING-KNOW what happens as soon as possible!

Now that is the effect I want in my writing! Don’t you?

But is it the case?

When people care, they take the time to write reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. They care so much they want all their friends to read the book so they have someone to talk about what happened with their friends.

If your sales are piddling, and the reviews are meh, perhaps it is time to be a little more intentional about the stakes of your novel. We keep telling ourselves we are organic writers and this stuff comes and you can’t force the story and all of that… and that is great, I suppose, if it works. Perhaps you have tension down pat. Perhaps it’s instinct for you.

Probably, if you’re like me, your writing could be stronger, more demanding to be read.

SO WHAT?

Seriously ask yourself this. So-freaking-what? If your protagonist does not get what he wants, so what? What is at stake here, and why should your readers care? Why does it matter if you even finish writing the novel?

Perhaps the world really will end, but probably it will be something a little smaller. Will the human race lose their free will? Or will the killer continue wreaking havoc on Maple Street? Or will Margo not get to go to prom? Or… what is it?

You’ve got to figure this out.

If you’re going to make the world end, it better be believable, and we better care about the people in the world first off. Otherwise it is just another asteroid collision or nuclear holocaust or super-villain goes all super-villainy on everybody.

UP THE ANTE

Let’s say Margo won’t get to go to prom. That’s okay tension, I suppose. Most of us have been there. It’s relatable. But it’s nothing special. Prom is overrated, anyway, right?

But what if what Margo really wants is something more specific? What if she is secretly in love with a boy in Lit class who has profound thoughts about literature and life? Only problem is dream boy is in love with someone else.

Better. Still cliche, but it’s more specific.

What if the other girl is Margo’s sister?

Better still. Family dysfunction is always ripe with tension.

Now should the sister be a bitch? Maybe. There’s tension there, an age-old feud between step-sisters. Sure…Ciderella-step-sisters-ugly-featured

But what if the sister is really sweet instead? That’d make Margo the bitch to break them up. What if sister and dream boy are really great together? But then, what if Margo and dream boy hit it off working on a project, and Margo is torn about her feelings and the fact that dream boy and her sister just got into a huge fight, and now he is asking her to go to prom with him since sister doesn’t want to go at all anymore and he doesn’t want to be alone…

That makes for a lot more tension, right? A lot more at stake.

DOES THIS SCENE HAVE THE ABSOLUTE MOST TENSION IT COULD POSSIBLY HAVE?

Ask yourself this about your project, whether you have written the scene or are planning it out. Whether you are happy with it or know it needs work. Whether you are approaching it organically or making an outline.

In what ways could this matter more?

BUT… DON’T GO OVERBOARD

That said, this probably isn’t the story to give Margo’s sister cancer on the night of prom and then have her walk in on Margo and dream boy kissing, on top of it all… Maybe it is, I don’t know. But the point is, you have also got to find the balance of believability. And you have got to give your characters a break some time.

I will never forget the feeling I had in the theatre at the end of GRAVITY. The movie was a non-stop roller-coaster ride of “everything that could possibly go wrong, absolutely will.” If there’s a door, it is locked. If something can, it will explode. If there is oxygen, it is almost run out.

I could barely breathe, the tension was so high the entire movie.

Finally, Sandra Bullock’s character is setting down on Earth, after every astronaut’s ultimate nightmare has occurred.

But then… she lands in water.

And then… the pod sinks and the hatch won’t open, but the pod is filling up.

200_sAnd all I could think was: Come on, just freaking let her have one thing go right. She’s got to almost drown at the end too?!

Maybe I was the only one. But this drove me crazy! I felt like it was just too much, the writers had taken the tension just too far for me to be invested anymore. It had passed believability as a disaster scenario.

QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS

I like to write organically, but lately, I have been trying to be more intentional with what I am writing. I usually set out with an idea of what is going to happen in a scene. Sometimes, I am surprised. But there are certain elements to stories that make them better. Stakes is one of them.

You may not find the big stakes in the first draft.

But ask yourself honestly as you are looking at your story in whatever stage it is at. I have a novel in its fourth draft, that’s been set aside for a while, but I know it can be better.

Why should my readers care? What is at stake? Is it enough? How could the stakes be better?

Do I even care?

If you don’t care or are bored with your novel, then you are probably lacking in tension.

Make your story NEED to be told, and NEED to be read! This is hard-wired into everything: characterization and relationships, setting, and so forth. I will expand on those later.

Ultimately, make us care so much, that we have got to know what is going to happen next. Don’t settle for Margo can’t go to prom stakes.

Make us stay up all night reading.

*I love hearing from you! Let me know ways you have found to Up the Ante. What are stakes that make you stay up all night reading?*

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