Writing a blockbuster novel is the dream of many writers. You wonder what a year, or two, of your devoted writing time, sacrifices, and financial commitment will glean for you at the end of a crazy, tedious road of writing that novel. You may hope for validation or simply have a story busting at the seams that won’t be silenced. And who among us

wouldn’t mind writing the Blockbuster novel in the process? You may be asking yourself right now, “How do I get there?” You continue to hone your craft, study how others utilize craft by reading in your genre, and by apply craft to the page. If you picked up on a general theme today, it should be craft.  You already know that you love everything about storytelling, but the dreary task of “craft” is daunting at best, and crippling at worst. Many writers who experience periods of block can overcome the vast emptiness by relying on a deepened understanding of craft. Let’s further our dissection of craft together.

Last month in How to Write the Blockbuster Novel: Edition Two – Theme, we discussed how to discover your story’s core compass, Theme. This month I am going to discuss how to make your characters resonate with readers by applying heightened stakes. When you think of “Stakes,” one thing should come to mind: Death. That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone dies every time you need to up the stakes, but there is more than one kind of death. We are going to discuss three types of death that apply to every genre and will even apply to non-fiction writing such as memoirs. Death’s masks itself in several arenas – Public, Professional, and Personal.

  1. Public Stakes will arrive on a large scale in your writing. Conjure up your best image of Austin Powers. Just the thought of that guy in the role of world domination dictating the direction of the international scheme of things should scare the hair off your head. The globe as you know it today would be changed forever and the death of anything decent would be imminent. These are stakes your protagonist can sink his teeth into. Public Stakes are not required for every story, but they are worth mulling over when creating a way to ratchet up the heat on your hero. Some great examples of Public Stakes include: The Andromeda Strain, War of the Worlds, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.
  1. Professional Stakes will make an appearance in your story when one or more of your characters work for a living. As a real human, you probably already know that making a bad decision on the job or taking unnecessary risks can result in disastrous consequences. Does your protagonist justify the money she embezzled will help the starving children of Mogadishu. She put her job in jeopardy to help in a desperate situation. It was the wrong thing for the right reason. These are the types of Professional Stakes that you should heap at every turn. Here are examples of succinct professional Stakes: The Wolf of Wall Street, Death of a Salesman, and The Firm.
  1. Personal Stakes cause the characters in your book to grapple with hard decisions that you design with your evil mind. And because you are so tough on them, you will make the only logical decisions available to your protagonist bad and worse. When dealing with stakes, you want to imagine that moment we’ve all seen in every B-rated horror flick. It’s when the girl is about to walk through the door and the boogie monster is patiently waiting for her on the other side. Your audience should scream out “No, don’t go into that room!” But we walk through the wrong door with her and pray like heck that she can get out of the horrible situation with her life in tact.  Personal Stakes may include the fear of a broken heart, loss of a beloved friendship, and yes, even physical death. The personal cost to your protagonist seems more than she can bear, but that should be your goal as a writer. Ratchet up the personal stakes at every turn and your protagonist will not only become increasingly interesting, readers will wait with baited breath in the front row seats to see how your protagonist is going to get out of this one.

When you increase the stakes for your protagonist, you imbue your character with scads of sympathy and likeability.  Readers will root for even the crummiest of characters if you apply the vice of heightened stakes to your character’s comfy, status quo world. Shake things up and make the consequences bad. Then top it off with a cherry and make it worse still. Donald Maas, author and agent of multiple best sellers boiled stakes down to the finest of roux when he stated what should be obvious to us all, “High stakes yield high success.”

Next month’s edition of How to Write the Blockbuster Novel will tackle Character Arc.


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