High stakes yield high success.
If you’re working to write or edit a book, you naturally want to know how you can improve the read. In all the books I edit, I try to serve as a careful reader and one of my primary considerations is always whether the story has enough of a sense of danger to grab my interest.
In fact, realistically and convincingly conveying what’s threatening the main character and what they stand to lose is the #1 determining factor in whether the book is engaging or boring.
Mercifully, I’ve never come across a manuscript where the author introduced a scene and then said, “It was very dangerous.” Though some have come close. However, some are even worse by not giving their story any scenes with danger in them. And in every edit, there are almost always many ways in which the author has left off what the reader needs to know and experience.
It isn’t enough just to tell us there’s danger or even what’s making it dangerous. You have to feel it, sense it yourself, then share it through those words that convey that feeling, through visceral senses.
And this is part of a larger rule I hope you internalize about specifically creating the emotions and events of your book. You must think about designing the experience and how to raise the stakes for the main character, increase the sense of danger, passion and personal urgency.
Most people realize that any story needs this strong sense of the dangerous context in order to feel real and compelling. But it’s easy to forget or believe it’s already understood, that you don’t need to specifically work on strengthening and deepening the fear for readers. And most authors haven’t thought through how to make readers feel afraid for their character by revealing specific threats and thereby increasing tension.
This is where the art of creating context is so important.
So often, the work of writing is to provide readers with the proper amount of context. And the most important part about doing that is thinking through how you’re getting readers to share your character’s plight.
Plight is a great word. It captures so much. First, that a character should have one, second, that we need to understand it, and third, that it isn’t just a grievance, an annoyance, or a struggle, challenge, conflict, “issue,” or personal preference. No, if you want readers to care about your story, you’ve got to reveal proof that your main character has a plight.
So now we’ve taken an unusual amount of time setting up the need and the next question is how. How do you introduce and escalate high stakes?
In Writing the Breakout Novel, famed New York agent, Donald Maass (“moss”) describes 3 kinds of stakes—the first 2 are public and personal. Another way to look at them is internal and external. Often, the stakes come down to failure and death, but obviously, the specific details and how you share them matter. Maass shares examples from two bestselling novels, quoting scenes and revealing how the stakes are conveyed through the dialogue and setting. Find a copy and read the chapter, though the whole book is of value.
What you are trying to convey must reveal a conflict or tension for drama, and all of it must work together so it isn’t distracting. Include that wonderful sensory detail about our surroundings, the place and time, so readers have the full context of what’s at stake and why it’s terrifying.
If you want to make readers care, you have to feel the fear and then work to evoke it. That’s how they’ll know the story is a big deal. Consider imagery and sensory detail—sights, sounds, smells, feelings. What words give the right sense of danger? Don’t tell us what’s making it dangerous, evoke that feeling with your words, your sentences, and the rhythm of them. Does it make sense, flow logically, is it quick and punching or slow and methodical? And remember, deep interest comes not from what you write but what you don’t. The magic is in leaving off the implicit suggestion and trusting that idea or image will be created in a reader’s mind.
Maass’ third type of stakes is your own. Knowing why this story matters to you and what makes you care so much is the most important fuel you could capture. It’s why I’ve written these Monday Motivations for years, and it fuels my own passion for writing and crafting powerful stories. Your why is what convinces you to keep going when you’re fatigued and what can banish the questions, “So what?” and “Who cares?” You care. And establishing exactly why takes time, but it’s so worth the effort.
You can find my tool for capturing that passion in the top menu (“Write Your Proposal”)—pay attention especially to questions #1 and #10. Your answer will grow as you develop your story and more is revealed to you, so capture that fuller description with more specifics, even as you learn more of the specific elements that reveal and raise the stakes for your reader.
If you’d like to share a sentence or two of your “why,” please do! Writing a book is an incredibly exciting journey! And if you follow this advice, I promise your readers can’t wait to read what you come up with.
For the higher purpose,