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

19 Nov
Charles Baxter's story, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb" is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

One of the most common suggestions for improving a short story is to “raise the stakes.”  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.

A perfect example of this can be found in Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” It’s included in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, and you can read it now at The New York Times.

How the Story Works

In John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband,” a man almost dies in a plane crash, but when he comes home, no one wants to talk about it. His wife and children essentially refuse to recognize him as a human being whose experiences and responses to those experiences might not fit into the neatly packaged world they’ve created for themselves. As a result, he begins to act in ways that force people to take notice of him–which is  what Harry Edmonds does in Charles Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” Baxter introduces the one personal slight that Harry cannot bear and so must resist, even at the sake of his own security.

The story raises the stakes by having this personal slight delivered by the person closest to the character, his girlfriend:

“You’ve never committed a crime in your life. You’re a banker, for Chrissake. You’re in the trust department. You’re harmless.”

Harry sat back in his chair and looked at her. “I’m not that harmless.”

“Yes, you are.” She laughed. “You’re quite harmless.”

“Lucia,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”

“‘Harmless’? It’s a compliment.”

“Not in this country, it isn’t,” he said.

This conversation has a direct effect on the character and, by extension, the story’s plot. The story began with Harry stepping into the police station to turn in a possible bomb threat but, at the last minute, turning around and leaving. After this conversation, he returns to the police station. From there, the story takes off, with Harry acting out to prove that he’s not harmless. “in this country,” he eventually tells someone, “if you’re harmless, you get killed and eaten.”

For this character, the stakes are his own self-regard, the sense that he’s a potent actor in the world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s raise the stakes in a story by giving a character a personal slight to resist or push back against. We’ll use the dialogue from “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” as a model. (This exercise can be used to create a story from scratch, but it may work best with a set of characters and a story that you’ve been working on for a while.)

  1. Put two characters who are close to one another together in a room. The room should be somewhere intimate, a place where personal things can be said.
  2. Make one character tell the other character everything that he/she is and is not. People do this all the time, often to themselves, saying things like, “I don’t eat muffins. I don’t watch baseball. I don’t do roller coasters.” Or they do it to other people: “He’s such a boy. She’s the kind of person who…” But while people don’t mind labeling themselves, they almost never like being labeled by someone else. So, a great way to create tension in a story (which is a roundabout way of raising the stakes) is by letting one character label another.
  3. Let the other character respond. The character should defend him/herself. “You say I’m X, but I say that I’m not.” Or, “You say that I’m not X, but I am.” If you’ve been in any kind of relationship, then you know that this is how many arguments go. Any time a character’s sense of him/herself is challenged, the stakes are being set.
  4. Make the character prove his point. Once your character’s identity has been challenged, make him or her prove that the challenge is incorrect. The proof could be literal (hitting a home run to show that he’s good at baseball) or more unpredictable (yelling at someone for not returning a grocery cart in order to prove that she’s tough).

Good luck!

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