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Raise The Stakes

Is your character suffering enough?

Are you pushing your characters to their absolute limits? Or are they merely disappointed by the plot twists and turns you’ve devised for them?

Page turners (surely how we’d all like our books to be described) rely on dramatic plot points that see a hero or heroine facing what seem like insurmountable obstacles – high stakes – that would cause a lesser character to crumble. Keep the stakes low and you risk boring your reader; make the stakes high and your reader will not be able to put your book down.

These high stakes – whilst essential – need to fit with the genre you’re writing. Killer crocodiles and asteroids are almost certainly not going to help you raise the stakes if you’re writing cosy crime. And think carefully about who you kill off. Death as a plot point invariably takes your book down a path involving grief, despair and possibly revenge – maybe not what you had in mind to test the mettle of your rom-com lead. When planning high-stake plot points, consider the character you’ve carefully created and the genre you’re writing, and then see how far you can push your character in the story you want to tell.

Let’s take Clara as an example. She’s the lead in an Up-lit novel. She’s a dogwalker who’s a bit of a doormat: undercharging, paying vets’ bills for clients who ‘forget’ to refund her and standing back as her neighbour sets up her own dog walking business and poaches most of Clara’s clients. Now, we need one last big obstacle for Clara to overcome. That obstacle could be the theft of Clara’s van that she uses for the dogs. It’s a good idea but is it enough? What about pushing Clara further by having a dog in the van when it’s stolen? And then finding out that it was her favourite dog. You can push her further still by having this favourite dog be old and frail. And even further if her neighbour tells everyone Clara has staged the theft to elicit sympathy from old clients.

Now, let’s look at a psychological thriller, where Maxine is the heroine. Years after beating a gambling and alcohol addiction which almost destroyed her marriage to Adam, Maxine’s tormentor, Jed, wants to send her spiralling back downwards into addiction. After failed attempts to get her gambling again, Jed tries one last time to persuade her to gamble with a family heirloom to pay for the damage she caused to Adam’s new car when she took it for a drive. If she doesn’t, Jed will tell Adam she damaged the car whilst drinking. Maxine knows Adam will believe anything Jed says. But is that enough of a push? Can we increase the drama further? What if we had a kidnapped child instead of a damaged car? Or a house that was at stake rather than a family heirloom? Too much? Or not enough?

Have a look at your current project and see where you can inject some more drama. Can you push your character a little bit more? A lot more? Give it a go and see. You can always dial it back down if you think you've overdone it.


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