Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (Part 11)

This entry is part 11 of 27 in the series Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

Public Stakes

The fate of the world.

Again, another idea that writers should consider as given and then work harder to make it interesting. However, in this case, when you’re taking a threat and making it global you need to be sure that it is still believable.

Maass offers two very different examples of public stakes in Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. I recommend a close reading of his explanation of the techniques employed by these authors.

Personal Stakes

In short, this is about creating a connection between the reader and the main characters by revealing details about their personal lives, However, there is another aspect to this that Maass reveals:

What is your character’s deepest desire? Got it? Good. Now, take it away or put obstacles in from of them that they must overcome to reach it. If you’ve done a good job of establishing the personal stakes, the reader will actually care if your character makes it to their goal and will keep reading to find out if they ever do.

Escalating Stakes

A simple plan to escalate the stakes in an already defined situation is to make the basic problem even more intense. Maass suggests an alternative, which is to add even more complications but of a different variety. In addition, Maass stresses that timing is everything. You need to think about the right moment for things to get worse as well as how they get worse.

How can the stake become not just a possible loss but one that has a palpable, dread-producing immediacy? Here is where the close call, the minidisaster, the preliminary loss can prove useful. It is one thing to warn of danger. It is another to let it take a bite out of the people in your story early on, or perhaps at a later moment as a reminder of just how devastating the ultimate disaster could be…

Achieving this effect demands that you, the author, be willing to make your characters suffer. That can be tough to do, but consider this: Being nice does not engender great drama.

I think that last sentence is particularly important. So many authors, myself included, play too nice with the characters in the story. We don’t make them hurt enough. This is something that will hold you back.

Your Own Stakes

What is burning a hole in your gut? Right now as you’re reading this article?

After all, we’re getting close to 4,500 words here. If you’ve made it this far you are searching for something deep. I know why I’m writing this, and that is my fire. I want to figure out what the hell went wrong with my development as a novelist and how I ended up tripping out on literary beauty instead of fiction that works.

You need to understand that I am a very performance-oriented person. To lose myself in the sublime is sort of the underbelly of my character. It’s procrastination with style. And it makes me very angry.

That kind of fire needs to show up in your fiction too. You need to understand why you are writing, what you have to lose if it fails. Is it just some artistic project of yours, some little toy? Do you just like calling yourself a writer? You have to admit, it’s pretty cool at first, but then later, when people keep asking you what it is that you write and other people start offering the fact that you are a writer… Do you cringe? Do you sweat?

I do.

I sweat because I don’t know what it is that I write anymore. I used to say things like “slice of life portraits of beauty” or some similar abstract nonsense. What that really means is that I don’t write anything. I pretend to write. Learn from my mistakes, figure out why you’re here and crank up the stakes.

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