18 November 2009

Upping the Stakes

So, since I'm officially on holidays from uni now (and never have to go back! Did I mention that? Ha! No more uni! *bounce*), I'm taking the opportunity to catch up on my horrendously long To-Be-Read (TBR) pile. Sometime last year, Merc made a goal of reading 100 books in a year; I decided I couldn't do that many, and would just read all the books I owned but hadn't read.

Yeeeah. No.

Last count that was 200+ books. *blush*

ANYway. I'm reading. And recently, I read a really excellent fantasy trilogy - the Black Jewels tril by Anne Bishop (which, by the way, is definitely R 18+, and DO NOT READ if you're at all squeamish about sex/violence/abuse). These books are stunning, in every sense of the word, and they're one of a handful of series/books that will stick around in my memory for a Very Long Time, and shape not only how I write, but how I think.

Which brings me to today's topic: Upping the stakes.

I read book one of this trilogy, and it gripped me. Like, I spent all night dreaming about it, gripped me. And, being Curious Writer, of course, I wanted to know why. Sure, the plot was intense (esp book 1), the characters so real I wanted to murder some and adore forever others, and the worldbuilding so beautiful I want to steal it all right now and make it Mine.

But none of that is the reason; none of that explains why I balled my eyes out for the last two chapters of the first book, and the second last chapter of the last book, and why I dreamt about these books every night after I'd read them.

Why did these books have such an impact on me? Because everything mattered. Bishop created a character that is not only adored by nearly everyone she meets, but also by the reader. She's an amazing girl/woman, with a magnetic personality. And then Bishop slams her over the head with every kind of heartache and abuse possible.

And the other main characters have to save her.

It works because everything is at stake; the characters literally have everything to lose, everything to gain.

Now, I don't want to suggest that unless you go out and destroy all of your characters' lives and totally tread them into the ground, unless you plot involves the destruction of the entire known universe, then it's not going to be compelling.

That's not true. Books can be very compelling, even if all that will change at the end of the day is the main character's own life.

The point isn't the size of the change; it's the importance of the change. It's our job, as writers, to convince our readers that what we're writing about matters; that actions have consequences, that those consequences will suck for someone the reader cares about, and that they don't want that to happen.

I've been using this lately in my NaNo novel. The story started out a bit fluffy, really: girl graduates from Evil Overlord school, wants to take over her city of birth to get her parents' attention, ends up accidentally blowing things up which is both good and bad for lots of people. Sure, it's a lot of fun - but even fun isn't enough. It has to matter*.

* To the story, to the reader. Not necessarily in some big 'Oh my gosh this is life-changing!' way; more things matter to us than change our lives.

And so, I went on a little romp through my plot and looked for ways to up the stakes. Those of you following me on twitter might have heard some talk recently of the demons raining from the sky; that's just one way I've introduced a bigger threat for Mercury, my MC, to face, one more complication to her plans and motivation for her to act out the final climax of the book. Her actions now matter, because they affect more people than just herself and her small circle of acquaintances; her actions will impact lives, and she knows it.

I know this has been a somewhat rambly post, but the take home point is this: What you write about has to matter in order for it to resonate with readers. Big things matter - but so do little things. It's your job as a writer to convince your readers that what you're writing about is important, even if only for the context of the story.

If you're struggling, if it feels like your work is falling a little flat - try upping the stakes. Give your characters something to work for, and things that will not only get in their way but also shred them into little pieces (physically, emotionally, whatever - your choice :D) along the way.

Conflict. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. Conflict matters.

So, tell me: what's your favourite conflict you've ever inflicted on a character? Who's the character who has to fight for the highest stakes? And which character matters most to you? I'll answer in the comments after you do ;)


Merc said...

*looks sheepish about the 100 novels thing* Erm, didn't happen... but I'm on better track for THIS year. O:)

Also. I can't do ellipses in all caps but...

. . .

Are, ah, are we talking about the same Black Jewels trilogy here? o.O

I think I got maybe three or four chapters into book one and... ow. I have read rants/spoilers about it and... yeah. *continues to stare*

While my brain regrows from that, I'll think about the questions. Or try. :P

Yunaleska said...

I love Hallie from Imperial Intrigue. Through trying to do the right thing, she brings about destruction on her kingdom. Her family disown her because they believe she betrayed them. Her twin sister even tries to kill her. She has it rough.

And even when the book ends, she's still in exile because few will forgive her. Yet they forgive her sister Elita who kills their parents (she was hypnotised and brainwashed to do it). No logic.

Inkblot said...

Merc - lol @ the novels. Um, yeah, we're probably talking about the same trilogy O:) It's totally scarring :D But if you can make it to the end of book 1, it's also... uplifting? That's not quite the right word. But it's what I was talking about in the post: it's /so/ scarring that it makes the win even win-ier. And the next two books are no where NEAR as R18+. *shudders* No where near. No. Where. Near.

Yuna - People are never logical in the way we expect, and that's what makes them fun >:) :D

Merc said...

Scarring is, uh, not totally the issue (heck, I've read some of Bentley Little's novels and shorts o.O)... though just to appreciate the brain-breakingness I may have to try and finish reading the first book.

*watches Sparky still searching for words*

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