I have been a writer my whole life long, beginning with writing on walls as a toddler to writing professionally as an adult. In that life-long career, I have written articles, picture books, non-fiction, poetry, essays, short stories, a memoir, and even a song or two.
But for years and years the novel was a form that absolutely eluded me.
For a long time, I told myself that I didn’t need to write a novel. After all, I had plenty of published work to stand on, and I had plenty of ideas for new works.
But I was kidding myself, because in my heart of hearts, it was a novel that I wanted to write. So, I took courses, I bought how-to books, I went to workshops. I did all of the required groundwork. Why couldn’t I crack this genre?
In the meantime, I had drawer after drawer, boxes stacked upon boxes, of half-finished novels that were just that: half-finished.
It seemed like I could create wonderful characters, interesting landscapes, and great, colorful details. My characters, despite their goals, just didn’t seem to make much progress. I’d get about half way through and then my story would lose steam and whimper into oblivion.
It wasn’t until I took an on-line course with master teacher Dennis Foley that I realized that the essential element missing from my work was tension.
Now, plots are plots. I knew how to create plots. They involve a character who is moving toward a goal. And as Dennis so aptly puts it: “a goal is nothing more than whatever your character is trying to achieve, overcome or acquire.” Easy peasy.
How could it be that I could have a character, in search of a goal, with all of the other elements in place, but still come up short?
As it turns out, in order for a reader to care about your story, the stakes have to be raised. You can have a character overcome incredible odds and obstacles, but if there’s nothing at stake, then there’s no reason to pull for that same character.
Let’s consider an example. Say we have a great guy named Phillip who is a cross-country racer and whose goal is to win the regional track meet. We’ll put Phillip at the starting line and pull the trigger on the starting pistol. Kapow! Off he goes.
If we use a basic plot, with three obstacles of increasing difficulty, we can first have Phillip develop an annoying blister on his heel. But because Phillip is tough, he runs through the pain. Next, it starts to snow. Now Phillip is having trouble seeing the track because of the snow, and his blister is getting worse, so the odds against his winning are increasing. Finally, he stumbles and turns his ankle. The entire pack is well ahead of him and Phillip is trailing badly.
Why Does It Matter?
We’ll leave it there. Whether Phillip wins or not doesn’t really matter. But what is missing from this story is the why of it. Why is it so important that Phillip win this race?
You see, there’s nothing wrong with this plot, nothing wrong with the obstacles, nothing wrong with the character. But we have no idea what the stakes are and why it matters so much to Phillip to win that race. Is a college scholarship at stake? Is he racing to prove something to his family, something about honor, about perseverance, about stamina? Is he racing to win enough money to buy medicine for his little daughter?
What will be irrevocably lost if he doesn’t win? Why is it so important to Phillip?
And that’s the key word — important. The stakes have to be so important to the main character that if they don’t achieve, acquire or overcome their goal, we the reader will care. If not, then it’s just a race.
Winning or losing doesn’t matter unless the stakes are high.
Raise ‘em, honey. Otherwise, nobody will care.