Exercise 4 Results – Raising the Stakes

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On Tuesday, I asked you to raise the stakes for your characters.

Now I want you to go back and assess how well you raised the stakes. Here are some criteria to look for in your answers to Tuesday’s exercise:

  • Does the main problem threaten the character’s life or the completion of a goal that is super-important to that character?

  • After you raise the stakes, is it now even more difficult for your character to achieve his or her goal?

  • Even if you did not write it out, do you have some sort of solution in the back of your mind?

  • Does the solution draw on the character’s established set of skills or something they learn or find during the story?

The first two points above are to help you generate a nice, suspenseful thrill for your readers, while the last two are to help you avoid painting yourself in a corner. Things should look grim for your character, but you have to have some solution in mind.

Special note – if your character does not survive:

In doing this exercise, you may use a character who does not make it to the end of the book. Okay, death happens and it sucks, but it can absolutely be the best thing for your story. Perhaps death is the tragic solution to your character’s problem – they were on a fool’s errand from the start, and only death would stop them. Perhaps their goal was something worth dying for, and their death solved the problem or enabled somebody else to solve it. Just avoid the trap of saying “Oh dear, the character is dead now, so their problem is gone.”

If the High Knight of Exampliphar was on a quest to clear his family name, he might die in his attempt, but you should avoid saying “Welp, his family name was never cleared. Sorry folks.” No, either his quest to clear the name is such a big or foolish errand that it becomes the end of him, or his death is exactly what clears the name. To just leave the family name hanging there, forever tainted, is far too much like real life (this is fiction, after all). There are authors who can pull off such realism and still have interesting stories, but I think it takes many years of experience – for beginners, I’d recommend having some sort of conclusion to each of the major threads you create (even if some of those threads span more than one book).

Okay, let me go back and re-assess my own Conflict 1 from Tuesday:

Character: William Flynn

Goal: He wants to be a respected news reporter.

I can look at two parts of this – respected, and news reporter. He gets flung across the universe, so there’s no news outlet he can work for. He still wants to be respected – as a rookie and a husband-to-be, it makes sense that earning respect is vital to him. He can also still desire to be a reporter – someone who chronicles the lives and struggles of others.

Problem: He is thrust into a unique role among his crew and has to figure out where his skills fit in.

His desire to be respected is threatened by a sudden change in role. His crew no longer needs a news reporter, but can his skills help in other ways? Perhaps he can still find ways to connect with the crew and their struggles?

How does this problem get worse? List a few possibilities:

  • He regularly interviews crew members as he asks for opinions on the captain’s responses to crises, but finds that many people don’t trust him.
    • I think his desire for respect is pretty clearly at stake here
  • He has several drone cameras that can fly outside the ship, and these prove useful in some situations. In a heated battle, however, he still finds himself on the sidelines.
    • He starts to find other ways he can help, but is he really doing enough?
  • He tries to aid as an interpreter when he accompanies the captain to negotiate with alien enemies, but ends up getting seriously injured in a firefight.
    • He’s not a fighter, but the ship and crew keep getting into danger. The captain won’t need him if he’s a liability – just what can he do?

Flynn’s desire for respect turns into a more basic need to aid the survival of the crew as the danger increases, but it’s always in the back of his mind. I can’t tell you exactly what role he ends up playing in the end, only that it is shaped by his encounters and actions in the story, and that it is driven by his base need for respect.

Your character should also have one or two base needs that drive their actions and shape their progression through the narrative.

 


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