Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to take your writing from bad to worse

If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes. — Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel

Sounds easy enough but how exactly do you go about doing it? Your story is most certainly about something—at least we hope so. The key is to take that “something” to the next level. Your character can’t only be looking for love…or a job…or a retirement home for her grandfather. There must be other things going on, other insurmountable obstacles, other interests, distractions, and frustrations.

Perhaps your protagonist witnessed a murder and was seen running from the scene by the police…and the killer. The police are now looking for him as a person of interest in the crime. The villain is also looking to silence him before he can find proof to implicate the real killer.

Sounds riveting enough. But how could you punch it up? How can you raise the stakes by giving the protagonist even more obstacles to overcome throughout the course of the story?

What if he also has personal issues? Consider that the day of the murder he lost his job. Not only is he running for his life and his freedom, his financial concerns are paramount in his mind. The police believe this gives him motive for the crime. His landlord has locked him out of his apartment so he can’t retrieve the one item that would provide an alibi. Neighbors see him breaking into his own apartment and call the police. An off-duty officer gives chase when the protagonist runs through an alley. The killer who has been following our hero shoots the officer. Now the police believe the protag is a cop killer and are more determined than ever to shoot him on sight.

Or possibly the ex-wife of our protag announced she is remarrying and moving with his teenage daughter to the other side of the country. The daughter doesn’t want to go. She wants to move in with him. He doesn’t tell her about witnessing the murder, only that she should stay with her mother and make the best of it. The daughter thinks he doesn’t want her interrupting his life. Nothing can be farther from the truth, but he can’t tell her this. The ex-wife thinks he’s a selfish pig. The daughter won’t speak to him. Or perhaps she runs away from home. Not only does he need to keep out of sight from the killers and the authorities, he needs to find his daughter and bring her home.

Now we have created some real tension. The main plot is keeping the protag out of jail and safe from a killer while trying to solve a murder. But interesting subplots will make the book more marketable to agents and publishers, probe deeper into the character of your hero, and more importantly, keep readers turning pages.

It is quite possible that murders and eluding the police don’t fit into your book. Even if your story is of a tamer genre, there are plenty of ways to raise the stakes and insert thrills for the reader. First ask yourself what main conflict does the protagonist face. Then broaden your scope and see what those problems lead to. One problem generally leads to another, in real life as in fiction.

It isn’t likely that you face only one issue at any given time in your own life. Perhaps you have to pay for your daughter’s wedding. That may be the most important thing on your mind this very instant. But you may also be concerned about your mother’s failing health, rumors of downsizing at work, finding time to spend with your younger children, and your ever increasing waistline. On top of everything, your dog is having puppies.

It’s how life happens. Give these same issues to your heroine. Multiply them until the reader believes the protag cannot take one more crisis.

Pull out all the stops. Make his life wretched and miserable. At least for now. Then you can show the reader his true character by the way he overcomes it all.

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