Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Stakes, Well Done

Maass says, and I agree, that one of the most devastating tests you can give your fiction is the "So what?" test. Suppose your protagonist fails in her appointed task. So what? If you can't answer this fundamental question in a satisfying way, then probably the stakes in your story are not high enough. As I alluded to in earlier entries, this is something I tend to have problems with. I like science fiction primarily because I want to live in the worlds described. I'm fascinated by the things to see and do that are described in the story. I wonder what the daily lives of that world's denizens are like, and am enthralled to see their lives played out. The level of conflict in this over-simplified view, however, is very, very low. Stories without conflict are travelogs. Some people like 'em, most people don't. More pragmatically, you'll have a devil of a time selling a fictional travelog to a magazine or publishing house.* Conflict, it's been said, is the engine that drives all good stories. As writers, we need to keep this in mind at all times. It's important, though, that the conflict matter. Otherwise, you'll fail the "So what?" test.

So how can we raise the stakes in the story? Maass recommends the writer consider two separate types of stakes. The first type is "public stakes." Public stakes are what society as a whole has to lose or gain as a result of the story. I think when most of us think of "raising the stakes" in a novel, this is what we think of. Public stakes can range from catching the killer to saving the town to saving the world. The other type of stakes is "personal stakes." This is what the character stands to lose or gain as a result of the story. The trick here is making the personal stakes something that we can relate to and sympathize with. Interestingly, Maass feels that "life or death of the character" is no longer high personal stakes because readers have seen life or death siuations so many times. I'm not sure I agree with this statement, because if the reader cares for the character and isn't at all sure he or she will survive (and that's the key part, I think), then these stakes can be meaningful. Certainly saving ones child or winning the girl are personal stakes we can all relate to, but I agree with Maass that the best way to raise the personal stakes is for the reader to identify with and genuinely care about the protagonist. We see tragedies on the news every day. If we truly felt for the victims of those tragedies with the same intensity we feel for our close friends and family, we'd simply go mad. (Come to think of it, there's a germ of a story there...) For our own psychological well-being, we shut down our emotions somewhat when it comes to strangers. If, on the other hand, the reader truly cares about the protagonist, then even less Earth-shattering stakes become important. We want Harry Potter to be able to go to Hogwarts, so we become anxious when his muggle relatives interfere. There are millions of very bright, friendly children in the world who don't get the education they deserve. We don't become anxious for their well-being, however, because we don't know them personally. It's just too abstract. Save the Children and similar organizations are well aware of this phenomenon; that's why they send you a picture and letters from the child you are "supporting." As I understand it, the money you send does not go directly into that child's hands, but instead goes into the general fund. This fund is then used to improve the welfare of all the children in the village, not just one lucky child. But by allowing people to get to know one child and maintaining the tacit illusion that they are supporting that particular child themselves, people are more likely to continue to donate. You can use this same psychological effect in your stories.

Personally, I think personal stakes are far, far more important that public stakes. Maass seems to rate them pretty much equally, and I can see that maybe including both will make a strong character story even stronger (see my entry on MICE for more on types of stories). So, put both types of stakes into your story, but whatever else you do, make maximum use of personal stakes. As I've said before, I have trouble truly hurting my characters, so this is advice I'll be focusing on as well.

*Here again, though, you can sell to game publishers, as this is often exactly the kind of material they are looking for.

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