Raise the Stakes

Writers In The Storm welcomes back Kara Lennox, a.k.a. Karen Leabo for some more plot-fixing magic. Look for Kara’s writing tips the first Friday of every month. This is the fifth in an ongoing series of Plot Fixer blogs by double RITA finalist Kara Lennox. Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House. Here are the links for  Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Part 4, on conflict, can be found here.

by Kara Lennox

Plot Problem #7

Stakes are too low

For the reader to care about your book, something important has to be at stake. Otherwise, the reader is likely to say, “Who cares?” or “Why is the heroine making such a big deal about this?”

What are high stakes? When the following are threatened:

  • Loss of life
  • Loss of limb
  • Loss of health
  • Loss of livelihood–not just the loss of a job, because most of the time, when someone loses a job, it’s bad, but they can and usually do get another job. So you have to set up your story where THAT job is the ONLY job that will do.
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Loss of affection
  • Loss of belonging
  • Loss of the ability to pursue a passion (a serious injury to a dancer, for example)
  • Loss of sanity
  • Loss of your soul
  • Loss of a home (but again, only if THAT home means something special, like it’s a family homestead that has been in the family for generations)
  • Loss of a business (see above, must be a special business, one that can’t be replaced or duplicated somewhere else.)
  • Loss of faith
  • Loss of ideals
  • Loss of a dream
  • Loss of freedom

This is not an exhaustive list, but I think I’ve hit all the big ones.

This can be tricky in a romance, especially a straight romance that does not involve suspense (as in romantic suspense, where lives are at stake) or some paranormal element. As a writer, you have to convince your reader that this romance is SO SPECIAL, it cannot be duplicated or replaced. If these two people lose each other, they’ve lost all chance to be happy, and those are perhaps the highest stakes of all:

Loss of happiness, forever.

Some ways to accomplish this are:

indicate that this romance is somehow fated. It was predicted, or the hero and heroine wished on shooting stars, or their grandparents were lovers who were torn apart, history is repeating itself–something magical.

involve a child. If the hero and heroine had a child together, nothing will ever be the same for that child if the parents break up.

show that these two people are so perfectly matched, no one else could ever do for either of them. The movie JUNO worked that way for me. Both characters were misfits; they had so many things in common. Only they understood each other. If they hadn’t both been just 16, they would have gotten married and kept their baby.

You also want to escalate the stakes.  The stakes should get higher as the story progresses. In a suspense book, this is easy; you kill someone else. Each successive death brings the threat closer and closer to your main characters, until finally one or both of them are about to die.

Sometimes, the stakes are high from the beginning. Take the movie MY COUSIN VINNIE. From the beginning, the boys are threatened with being convicted and executed for a murder they didn’t commit. But that very undesirable outcome becomes more and more probable as their incompetent lawyer makes mistake after mistake after mistake. No matter what he does to fix things, he just makes things worse until the viewer can’t imagine how the boys will escape their fate.

So, ask yourself: What’s at stake in your story? In the infamous words of literary agent Donald Maass, how can you make it worse? How can you make this even worse? What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Find a way to make that happen, or at least introduce the probability that it will happen. (Whenever I ask my husband this question, he always says, “The whole universe could turn into anti-matter and we could be sucked into a black hole …” Yeah, yeah, yeah.)

Do you have trouble taking your characters from bad to worse? Do you have questions about raising the stakes?

Kara Lennox, author of Project Justice series for Harlequin SuperRomance

Six titles now available in e-book or print!

Hidden Agenda now available

Sweet Romance Hard to Resist now available from Harlequin Heartwarming

Karen Leabo, author of Callie’s Cowboy, August release from Bantam Loveswept e-books

Next Monday we’re welcoming Shannon Donnelly who is kind enough to share her thoughts on subtext, since that workshop was cancelled at conference and many of us bemoaned that fact outside the doors to the session.

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20 Responses to Raise the Stakes

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Karen, so love this. It’s something I struggle with. I get the concept, but somewhere in the middle of the book, things don’t seem as clear as they were when the idea was shiny and unwritten. I tend to think – and then a miracle happens, and…

    Which doesn’t work so well in contemporary! Going to ponder this great advice in my WIP. Thank you.

    Your new headshot is AWESOME!!!

  2. marsharwest says:

    The list of losses is really helpful, Kara. Nice and uncomplicated doesn’t sell books. LOL And I agree with Laura. What a great headshot!

  3. Love the new headshot! Very nice list. Printed out and added to my file.

    Barb

  4. karalennox says:

    Glad this is helpful info, and thank you for the headshot love.

  5. When I find a post like this, it gives me a similar feeling to when I catch a green crumpled piece of paper on the ground and get closer to realize it’s a 20 dollar bill. Very happy I found you, thank you for sharing things in such simple ways!

  6. This is a great list. I’m keeping it. Thank you.

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  8. Great list, Kara. I needed this!

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  10. karalennox says:

    Thank you Jennifer, Ella and Gwen. Heh heh, I love finding money on the ground!

  11. Great list, Kara. I should laminate it and hang it above my computer.

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  14. Sandra Dauber says:

    thanks this is really helpful.

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