Friday, July 15, 2016

Raising the Right Stakes: Where Writers Go Awry

High stakes, more interest
In the 2001, literary agent and writing guru Donald Maass penned the must-have reference tool Writing the Breakout Novel. In Chapter 3, Maass begins:  “If there is one single principal that is central to making any story more powerful, it’s simply this: Raise the stakes.” But how does a writer know which stakes to raise? Raise the wrong ones, and you wander down the garden path not knowing how to return.

To know which stakes to raise take this example. Let’s say your protagonist’s dog dies. If you write mysteries, suspense or thrillers, or if you want to layer your work, the dog dies under mysterious circumstances. You can up the stakes by making the dog a onetime Westminster Kennel Club winner. Sounds great, right? Not necessarily. This route likely requires a protagonist of a certain socioeconomic class and for you to learn a lot about Westminster. Since it’s a big event with a big name, this plot option takes the reader toward a situation instead of the character, and character-driven plots resonate more with readers.

So what if the dog is a rescue whose owner is devastated because his beloved pet was saved from near certain doom only to meet her end under the pet owner’s roof, or in the yard, or up the street? In the Westminster scenario, the theme might be personal greed. In the second, any number of options could work, and the stakes are actually higher because they’re more personal than professional.

So if you’re wondering which stakes to raise journal the options to see where each would take you. That way you avoid good writerly intentions that could otherwise go awry.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Is Your Story a Novel or a Short?

Café in Trento, Italy
When a writer has an idea for a story, one question is: How do I know if the story is a novel or a short? To answer this question, consider scope. For a novel, the landscape is broad and deep enough to sustain a longer work. The storyline has enough plot points, or main events. The main characters evolve or devolve sufficiently. For a novel, you need more words and time to accomplish these goals. Writers then ask: Can’t I do the same in a short story? Yes, but a short is like abstract art; all the elements of a great work are there, but you do more with less. One way to tell the category of your work is to write a plot treatment. If you find that each idea generates more, you likely have a novel. For the consummate short story writer, see the work of Nobel laureate Alice Munro.