How to Raise the Stakes

How to Raise the Stakes in a Fragmented Narrative

Story: “In the Middle of Many Mountains” by Nahal Suzanne Jamir, published in Meridian

Though the form is fragmented, the characters retain a certain amount of wholeness. It’s possible to say what they want and do not want. These desires drive the plot. The narrator will be forced to do what seems impossible: to hear what she doesn’t want to hear and see what she does not want to see. Thus, the story uses the strategy used by all great stories. It pushes a character until the only option available is the one she never thought she’d choose.

How to Raise the Stakes by Challenging a Character’s Identity

Story: “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” by Charles Baxter, published in The New York Times

The writer Lee K. Abbot apparently once “dismissed a graduate class in less than five minutes by holding up a story, asking “Is there anything at stake in this?,” and upon hearing silence, said they were done with class.” But how does one make something hang in the balance? One option is to dangle a sword over the character’s head as in the Greek tale of Damocles. Another option is to give your character something to resist or push back against. Most often, this means impugning your characters’ reputations and watching them push back.

How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

Story: “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang, published at Day One

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

How to Write Moments of High Emotion

Story: “Madrid” by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, published by Day One

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time.

How to Create Moments of Clashing Context

Story: “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner, published by Joyland

In high school English classes, students are sometimes introduced to the terms round character and flat character. These same terms occasionally pop up during writing workshops, often accompanied by the statement, “I want to know more about So-and-so.” But as a piece of advice, “I want to know more about…” isn’t very helpful. Let’s assume the writer does as suggested and brainstorms pages and pages of backstory and character description—then what? Knowing more about a character doesn’t automatically result in a better story or even in a rounder character. The more needs something to do. It needs a purpose.

How to Turn Emotions into an Existential Threat

Story: “One of the Days I Nearly Died” by Joseph Scapellato

Writing teachers have a lot of ways of saying basically one important thing about story beginnings: set the stakes and break the routineand put a gun on the wall and show your character’s desire. All of these instructions are trying to get you to give your story the sense, from the first lines, that something big is about to happen—the literary equivalent of basketball players setting up for an inbounds play with the game on the line, or sprinters lowering into their stances as the starting gun is raised. The audience knows something is about to happen, something intense and worth pausing everything else to watch. That’s the kind of opening a story needs. You can find plot ways to do this—putting a gun on the wall or starting in medias res during an airplane crash—but there are other methods as well.

How to Create Tension Between Desire and Thought

Story: “The Want” by Octavio Solis

Every writer knows that it’s important to find a character’s motivating desire, and those desires are often pretty simple: make money, find love, get revenge, get away, get laid. These are essential human desires, but when they’re distilled down to basics, they can feel too simple. In our minds, our lives are messier and more complicated than any of these desires, which is why we’ve all heard someone say (or we’ve said), “It’s not just about ___. It’s the principle of the thing.” In life and in stories, there’s the desire itself and the invisible architecture of thought, rationalization, philosophy, theology, and politics that we construct around it. Sometimes we become so invested in this architecture that we forget about the desire upon which it’s built.

How to Make Readers Care about a Story’s Movie-Poster Elements

Story: “Voodoo” by Christopher DeWan

I often teach a class about first pages and how to hook readers. There are some obvious strategies for this: introducing a gun, dead body, broken rule, or a moment with two possible outcomes. But none of these is enough to compel a reader to turn the page. After all, we’ve all seen these strategies put to use over and over again. Something else is needed. That something could be a bigger or more awful gun, more dead bodies, and a more taboo broken rule, but at a certain point you’re simply making another Saw movie. Shock value is a finite resource. But human emotion isn’t. For a first page to be truly compelling, it needs to make readers careabout the gun or dead body or whatever.

 

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