So, let's take a moment to consider stakes in writing. It been a while since I've done one of my "craft notes" posts... this might be fun. Or boring, depending on what interests you.
Ava Jae (Writability blog) writes...
...Without established stakes, the readers have no reason to care if your protagonist fails or accomplishes his goal. The tension disappears, the conflict doesn’t matter because if your protagonist loses, oh well. Not like anything bad happens.
I really think this is a vital problem in my YA novel. I have an overall idea of what I want to happen across the three books, but I still don't know the end goal. And while I do plot and plan (outline) to a certain extent, I don't believe that I think about "stakes" at all. Do you?
Maybe you think about them all the time? Or Maybe you're like me and don't think of them this way. I can only hope that in all of my plotting and weaving that I'm some how accomplishing the above? I tend to think about writing in less traditional ways, or maybe I define writerly terms in ways that aren't the norm. I've been writing since I was nine. Everything I knew about writing (up to almost 3 years ago now) was learned through reading and by the practice of writing. Even having studied writing in the MFA program, I know that I couldn't adequately define anything about my writing process. I vaguely understand metaphor. I have no idea what syntax is. Participating in a MFA program really opens your eyes to writing mechanics (in some cases, anyway). I don't really know how much I learned in all those classes. I often found myself scratching my head whenever we talked about "plot." I was probably the ONLY person in my classes who wrote plotted, character-driven pieces, and I didn't understand what the hell they were talking about. The way literary writers think of plot (versus a "genre" writer) isn't the way I think of it. Or maybe it was semantics. Similes, even. Still, one degree later and I'm still not quite sure that I could explain technical craft to anyone. Not in the traditional sense, anyway.
Anyway, my lack of thinking about stakes is likely why with every project I come to a "what am I writing about" or "what's the point of this novel?" moment of panic. It usually happens toward the end, and especially if I haven't been outlining. I know that I have "goals" that I want the characters to move toward (growth is a big thing for me), but I don't always consider what might be at stake for them. Again, are these things the same? I'm not really sure.
When I think about my KM books, I'm not sure that I could identify what's at stake for Estela. Yes, she has something to overcome (usually a psychopath!), and I do think that she grows with each book, but am I missing something more important? I probably am, especially with KILLING MEMORIES, which wasn't outlined until late in the second half and still feels a little muddy. It needs another edit. In the span of four books (because while they could stand alone, I wrote them to be read as one giant saga), what is at stake for Estela? A lot of little things happen, but what's the big picture? I really don't know. I need someone to tell me.
Here's another great excerpt from the blog:
I suspect a large part of the reason writers sometimes forget to mention the stakes in their pitch is because they’re so close to their work. The writer knows what will happen if their protagonist fails and sometimes it seems obvious to them even in their stake-less pitch what that failure means--but to the outside reader who doesn’t know the story so well (or at all, for that matter), they need the stakes spelled out to them.
I often feel WAY too close to my characters. But in the case of THE SPIRIT KEEPER protagonist, Evelyn, I'm not completely sure what her stakes are. What is she going to lose if she fails (and what is she trying/tasked to do)? I feel like if I can figure that out the main character may be more likeable. I mean, I like her just fine, but I'm really close to her. Unlike readers, I can hear her voice, feel her anxiety, etc. I feel the same way about Estela and Moo and while I feel that they are richly developed, I still wonder if readers are really able to see them like I can?
Stakes are definitely something to think about as I write/edit.
I know for a fact that I didn't include the stakes in my query letter for THE SPIRIT KEEPER when I sent it out to agents a year ago. This is something that I'll need to think about when I start working on submitting it again (likely after I finish up with my KM series). This is also something I need to think about when I write my blurb/summary for KM4.
Stakes are on my mind now, but I wonder if they'll slip away once I start writing/editing again? Perhaps my subconscious will tuck them away with all the other skills I've learned and then do the work for me? One can hope...
What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse. ~Ray Bradbury
Check out the article: Pitch Tip: Remember Your Stakes