One of the things I always need to do after I've got a first draft is raise the stakes for my characters. I think it's because my stories almost always start from characters instead of events. I will get an idea for a scene and my first thought is always "what is the character doing here?" I spend a lot of time thinking about the character, until I understand what type of person the character is and what she (or he) would do next, and then I'm off to the races.

But what ends up happening in the resulting first draft, then, is that I have a lot of scenes where I'm just working things out about the characters, and not much is actually happening. In the earlier editions of The Book, for example, there were a bunch of scenes where my character was sitting on the porch thinking. And those scenes were necessary to my own understanding of the main character, they were...they were boring. Nothing happened in those scenes. Combine that with a plot that had very low highs and almost no lows and the whole thing was just flat.

Or in the TNP, where after my first draft I realized that all the interesting plot twists I'd hinted at in the first three chapters didn't actually show up in the draft. I'd gotten so caught up in writing scenes in which my characters did cool stuff or fun stuff or romantic stuff that I'd forgotten to put in any action.

So when I start the second draft of a story, I always look for spots where I can raise the stakes. Some people will say "raise the stakes as high as they can go?" but I find that, if you raise the stakes too high then you run the risk of what I like to call The Nuke War Problem.

See, back in college, I was in CEDA debate. It's a form of debate in which two teams debate against each other about a topic by presenting evidence to rebut the other side's arguments. And, inevitably, one of the teams would create a string of evidence (usually by misusing information) demonstrating that the other side's position would lead to nuclear war. Vegetarian menus in schools? Nuclear war. The equal rights amendment? Nuclear war. Public funding for art? Yep, you guessed it. Nuclear war.

And sometimes that's how I feel when an author hikes the stakes up too high. Like, it's not enough that the main character has to deal with the death of his little sister, but he has to save his parents from divorce, and rescue the world from monsters, AND save the fairy kingdom from the rule of his evil aunt. Or, especially with commercial thrillers, the killer can't just be some bad guy who's messed up enough to kill people, he's got to be a complete Hannibal Lecter to the eighth power or the stakes aren't high enough. It's, like, enough already!

There's a fine line, to me, to raising the stakes and yanking the stakes up so high that you get a stake wedgie.*

In other (less uncomfortable) words, the stakes should be high, but they should also be specific to the character and the story. Every killer doesn't have to be Hannibal Lecter. Every quest doesn't have to be to save the world. Something doesn't have to be nuclear war to be a Really Bad Thing. The stakes don't have to be very high objectively, in order to be high subjectively.


*...this metaphor did not work out the way I had hoped. Sorry about that.


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