It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”
I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.
I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.
In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.
I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?
In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.
An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.
I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.
A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!
I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”
Maybe that means I’m on the right track.