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.


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