Monday, September 17, 2007

Take It Public

Writers hear a lot about "raising the stakes" when it comes to their story. That means, basically, increasing dramatic tension, creating anxiety in the reader about the outcome of events and their effect upon the characters so that they continue to read the book.

I've talked about creating characters people will care about, and using conflict, misunderstandings between characters and complications to up the tension.

Donal Maas, in his excellent book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, adds another element to the mix, what he calls "public stakes." I touched on this briefly in the blog post about characters (How To Get Tense), when I mentioned Todd Stone's advice from Novelists' Boot Camp about giving your characters an audience, so that their success or failure is more public. That way, they have even more to lose if they fail to reach their goals.

Donald Maas has a different meaning, though. He suggests you create a situation where the outcome of the events of the novel and the conflict you've created have a more extensive impact, not just on the main or secondary characters, but on the novel's society at large. To give an example that immediately came to my mind when I read that part of DM's book (although it's not a novel): in the film Gladiator, Maximus is primarily motived by his need to have justice for his murdered wife and son. However, he will also be exposing and punishing the usurper and murderer of Marcus Aurelius and saving the Roman empire from a terrible ruler. His person goal will have a far-reaching effect on the world he lives in, and if he fails, the catastrophe will extend far beyond him, too. Those are some pretty big stakes there.

In the series I'm currently writing (MY LORD'S DESIRE, THE NOTORIOUS KNIGHT and the upcoming KNAVE'S HONOR), there's certainly conflict between the heroes, heroines and villains -- but if the good guys lose, they won't be the only ones who suffer. So will their extended families, and so will, eventually, the people of England. The stakes are much greater than my hero and heroine's own personal happily ever after.

Note: I can do this because I have a big canvas. If you're writing a short category romance, you may not be able to make the stakes that big. But I would suggest going at least one step beyond the hero and heroine, to another circle of involvement, either family or friends, or perhaps business.

(Think I'm done with dramatic tension? Not quite. Last installment later this week.)


Christine d'Abo said...

I like this way of thinking about the conflict. And the Gladiator example really brings it home for me. Great post, Margaret!

Michelle Styles said...

Thank you for reminding me about public stakes. I was wondering what was wrong with my current ending and now I realise -- the stakes are not nearly high enough.

Still it is better to realise and revise, then to be told to revise

Margaret Moore said...

I have so much to say about this subject because it took me awhile to figure out what my agent and others meant by "layers of conflict," and this would be another example of that. Layers of conflict is a good thing. :-)

And yep, always better to realize a flaw yourself than have it pointed out later. Or at least be aware of a potential question, so you're ready with the "I did this way because..." explanation.