Friday, March 22, 2013

Craft Note: What Are My Characters' Stakes?

So, a friend of mine shared a blog link with me about "stakes" in writing, which got me thinking about my newest work, THE SPIRIT KEEPER. This is a Young Adult (although, I do think "adults" would enjoy it too) supernatural trilogy that I started about two years ago now, I guess. The first book is written (I was going to say "finished" but nothing is finished for me) and edited (again, nothing is finished), but I still think that something is missing. I've had at least 2 readers say that they couldn't connect with the main character. I believe that part of this is because I have yet to answer this question: "What's at stake for my characters?" Also, I have no idea what the point is or what I'm trying to say, or want to happen. Perhaps these questions are all tied together? Maybe it's the same question asked three different times....

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


  1. I just read that article and came to thank you for sending it to me. It really made me think about my writing and the whole stakes thing.

    I will actually give this the thorough commentary this needs in a bit but this right here:

    "I have no idea what syntax is."

    So true. And then someone tells me I have to work on my syntax and I pretty much do a dumb close mouthed smile because I know it relates to my writing style and the way I ... structure ... my ... sentences (? I think?? that's how I define it) but I don't really know.

    " 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. "

    See, I always say I'm a character-driven writer, not a plot writer as if they're two different things. I'm more about where the characters are going then about the 'plot' which is probably why my stories take forever to get anywhere.

    But that's why I like straight romances a lot of the time. The stories are pure character driven, yeah there's a plot thrown in, but if I like the characters I will forgive a lot of things.

    And on to the topic of stakes. I do have them but they tend to develop after I have my characters set which is why I too suffer from the 'where is this going' freak outs and then I don't write for months because absolutely nothing works.

    Interestingly enough, on the story I'm supposed to be working on I know the stakes but the character is no longer the girl she was in the first book and so I can't write it.

    I can write a story with no stakes up until the halfway point as long as I know my characters and by then something will have worked it out, but I can't write a story without a character that I know inside and out even if I have the story itself figured out.

    For Moo and Estela I feel like I can see what you see with them, however there's a bit of a disconnect for me with Evie. I don't mind little stakes, especially when it's a series but it's the small stakes in each book that will pull me in and help thread the bigger stakes together in the end.

    I do feel that Evelyn didn't have high enough stakes in The Spirit Keeper. Like, I think the reason I liked Lucas so much was because he had so much to lose. His best friend, his mother, even himself and he didn't even know it but there was this desperation around him and an overall creepiness. I never felt that from Evelyn so although I felt for her at certain parts I didn't really connect with her.

    But then again it all comes down to personal preference since I didn't connect to Cameron at all but I know there's probably a bunch of people who would be team Cameron.

    (also, sorry if I'm getting the boy's names wrong but those are the names sticking in my head for them. If I am wrong when I say Cameron I'm talking about the Angel and Lucas = the demon born with a soul).

    Have you thought of doing an analysis of your own novel and see if you already have the basis for the main stakes for that book there and maybe it just needs to get a little fleshed out?

  2. You got the names right! :). I agree with you that Evelyn and Cameron probably need their stakes clearly defined. Although, I think that Cameron's is a little bit there (Falling), but maybe it's not as strong. I'm slowly working on another edit of it--trying to curb a little bit of the love triangle thing to focus more on what's at stake for everyone.

    I think The Spirit Keeper needs a good analysis, actually. I think I managed to write a chapter-by-chapter summary of what happens, but maybe an analysis is deeper than that? Maybe what I need to do is write rough outlines for books two and three. If I have the "big" picture (and an ending!), maybe then I can work on the little stakes that come along in each book?

    Have any Analyzing Your Novel 101 suggestions for me? :)

    And I mean, what is plot anyway? Because when you said "it's more about where characters are going then about the 'plot'" I have to scratch my head. To me, getting the characters to where they're going is the plot. But I don't think that's how people think about it it. With the MFA program I was made to believe that "plot" was a bad thing. A turn-your-nose-up kinda thing. Why? Because at times it is predictable (ie, most romances have a set plot of events: girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, complication to relationship/love enters [usually a lie or an ex-girlfriend or a secrete], girl and boy make up, happily ever after). So is this set (and highly successful) formula why some turn their nose up at plot-driven novels? I don't know... I'm still not sure that I understand.

    Also, I agree with this:

    "I can write a story with no stakes up until the halfway point as long as I know my characters and by then something will have worked it out, but I can't write a story without a character that I know inside and out even if I have the story itself figured out."

    I think all of my stories begin with a character that pops into my head. I don't think I've ever written anything and not been fully invested in a character. If they aren't real to me, I don't write them. Sometimes I miss my early writing days when I didn't think about all this stuff :) My stories probably weren't that great, but it sure was a lot easier!

  3. I think the reason I have a bit of difficulty with Cameron's stakes is because it's more a consequence. Like, he's never really at risk of losing Evelyn, which I would think was a bigger stake because it takes him a while to realise that he's at risk of falling.

    I do, actually, lmao. I tend to search these things out when I can't write and then they got tossed to the wayside as I write and then browsed through again when I have to do an edit/rewrite.

    Here are some links on deconstructing your novel:

    This one is for a more about deconstructing your outline but I think it can work in the same way.

    And this one is about deconstructing the novel of an author you like and then using the same techniques on your own stuff:

    I think that would be interesting if after you've done the deconstruction of a novel in the genre you're writing in to see what your novel might be missing, especially for a first book since just because it's a novel for set up doesn't mean that it shouldn't be able to stand alone and it'll be interesting to see how someone else manages that.

    "To me, getting the characters to where they're going is the plot. But I don't think that's how people think about it it. "

    That's how it works for me as well, but I get the feeling that some people think a plot is able to stand alone regardless of who the characters are. So even if you took out Evelyn and Lucas and Cameron and swapped them out with someone else the plot should be able to be the same.

    That's not how it works for me though. If I change the characters then it's a different story. I have three different stories going that all have the same basic concept but each time I tried to write it the main character was someone else and each of the stories are now different.

    But maybe we're getting the story mixed up with the plot? Like the hobbit. The plot of the hobbit is that a hobbit joins thirteen dwarves to fight a dragon and reclaim their homeland. It could have been Bilbo or any of his cousins that was the hobbit to work with the plot but the story that was told would've been different if the hobbit was someone who was braver or had experience with a sword or going where he shouldn't.

    I think we should also keep in mind the genres we write in. I'm mainly New Adult/YA and romance and both of those are very character driven stories where the plot doesn't exist without them while with a fantasy I think the world and the situation people find themselves in are more interesting and drive the plot forward more so then what happens to the characters.

    This took me so long to write and I still feel like my point is a bit off but yeah, that's how I feel. I try not to think so hard when I'm actually writing or starting to write, which is why I avoid editing so much, lol, there's just so much wrong but once I start to think about it too much it can get a bit stifling.

  4. Oh geez! I'm mentioned/linked! Guess I should get back on the ball of life, huh? I am due for a new blog entry, that's for sure. And trips to Nigeria, Spain, and upcoming trips do have me inspired...

    Anyway, the reason why I really liked that article was because I realized I never think about stakes. I just sit and write. And then I never finish anything because I get bored with the story/characters since I have no clue what's at stake for them. I'd agree I had a similiar issue getting through Spirit Keeper.

    I think the stakes are a bit clearer with the KM series. They are also less serious than The Spirit Keeper. But like in KM1... it's get the guy or lose the guy. KM2... keep my friend alive or find her dead. And so forth.

    Sytanx does deal with sentence flow and variance :-) Are all your sentences short and choppy? Long and flowy? Wordy? Blah, blah, blah. Talking about craft can be fun, but I think it's more important that you actually have a craft to hone. And learn more about it as you go along :-)

  5. Yeah, I still don't know what the stakes are for Evelyn in book 1. I've always seen book 1 as "the creation of the spirit keeper" in a way... but in doing that, a lot of things just happen to her. She doesn't have a choice to make. The only thing she has to lose is the idea of a normal life, which she's never had. I need to figure it out.

    I should research syntax a little more. I feel like I have the same sentence structure (often repeated over and over). I need to shake things up. I actually think I have a book on it--but it's in a box in the garage.