Wordy Wednesday: Raising the Stakes

It’s been a busy week.

I had my first day of work at the bookshop Thursday, then promptly found out that my roommate Hannah needed someone to go to Chicago with her for an emergency trip to the Brazilian consulate (don’t ask). So I traded off Ch1Con Chat duties for the night with the incredible Kira and off we drove to Chicago.

We spent a good part of Friday running back and forth between the consulate and other places, then we got our reward for enduring all of that: a few free hours in downtown. We ate lunch in the cafe in Millennium Park with the Bean as our view, then took the river walk to Navy Pier, where we sat for a while and watched the boats and waves. Afterward, we took the water taxi back to the Magnificent Mile, and from there spur-of-the-moment decided to do a river boat architecture tour. We finished the afternoon with stops at a candy shop and Garrett Popcorn for provisions for the long drive home, then headed back to Michigan.

Despite the fact that in total we were only gone for around thirty hours (and we spent almost half of that in the car, another seven hours or so sleeping, and the entire morning doing the emergency consulate stuff), it was a fun trip. We listened to the Order of the Phoenix audiobook on the way there and back, and got to hang out for the first time since winter semester ended, and yeah.

Then on Sunday my family decided to go into downtown Detroit for the day to celebrate my brother’s recent birthday (HAPPY TWENTY-FOURTH, DUDE), so we hit the Detroit Institute of the Arts to see the special Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo exhibit, then wandered around Campus Martius and Greektown and got dinner. And it was a really wonderful day.

However, what both those trips meant was that come Monday, I was insanely behind on everything. So I’ve been playing catchup with all my various jobs and responsibilities ever since. Fingers crossed that in the next couple days, I finally get there (because then next week is BEA/BookCon, which means I’m going to get behind again).

Anyway. This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

So this week in my screenwriting class, we’re sharing something called our “five minute pitch.” (The name is pretty self-explanatory.)

I’ve pitched projects a billion times before, between telling literary agents at conferences about my novels and sharing ideas at meetings. But doing the five minute pitch for class was honestly terrifying, because here’s the thing: We haven’t worked on our scripts at all yet.

AT. ALL.

We’d just finished sketching out some quick character profiles and our loglines, and all of a sudden our professor wanted us to have our entire plot ready to go–with all the twists, subplots, and character development fleshed out.

I’m a pantser and a procrastinator, so of course I went into class (assigned to pitch first) with next to nothing prepared and just winged it. And it went pretty well for me making up the story as I went.

However, in the critique afterward my class pointed out a pretty big flaw in my idea. This is a flaw I regularly run into, and probably the fact that my class got the very roughest draft of the plot for my screenplay made it even more apparent than usual.

I’m bad at stakes.

Not always, of course. Within stories themselves, my here-and-now stakes are generally pretty solid. (In the case of my screenplay, a girl’s best friend has been kidnapped and if she doesn’t find her fast, the kidnapper will kill the BFF.) But my why-is-this-story-happening stakes often need help.

Generally, we call this type of stakes “motivation.” Why is someone doing something? Why would they approach the issue in this specific way? What do they hope to obtain from it or fear will happen if they don’t succeed?

It’s that last question that transforms a character’s motivation into a form of stakes, but it’s the combination of the three that I have trouble with. In order for a motivation to feel realistic and justifiable to a reader/viewer, it has to be a single thing that realistically and justifiably answers all three questions.

When pitching my screenplay idea, I talked about how the kidnapper wanted vengeance on the BFF for something she’d done in the past. So, technically I’d answered the first question–but my pitch didn’t really cover the other two, and I hadn’t really thought about those yet.

And, unfortunately, my answer to Question #1 wasn’t the greatest, either.

“The stakes aren’t high enough,” my professor cautioned. My classmates offered ideas for ways I could make the kidnapper’s motivation stronger by making the BFF’s past mistakes worse.

And sitting there in front of the class, furiously taking down editorial notes, I realized something: The mistakes I’d already assigned the BFF were deplorable, so it wasn’t that they weren’t realistic or justifiable motivation for the kidnapping. It was that they weren’t for a kidnapping in fiction.

If this story was happening in real life, the best friend wouldn’t need to do as bad of things to justify someone kidnapping her. The kidnapper wouldn’t need as much riding on her decisions. Real life allows for chance and illogical actions and spur-of-the-moment choices (like Hannah and my one day road trip). But while real life certainly thrives on order, fiction needs it to survive.

You don’t need justification in real life, because it’s really happening. That’s justification enough. But because fiction is, you know, fictional, the reader/viewer no longer is required to believe what you’re telling him/her. So it becomes your job to make it just oh so painstakingly without a doubt believable that s/he has no choice but feel that what you’re telling him/her is the truth.

And this is the part that I’ve had issues with in the past. I know how to justify things IRL; it’s a whole other story to do it in fiction.

The easiest way is to quite simply raise the stakes. Make what’s going on bigger, worse, harder to come back from.

In one of my novels, I was dealing with an organization of dastardly vigilantes that the government wants to shut down. I originally had them at only a couple hundred members, which my critique partners immediately said they couldn’t believe. (“Why would the US government care about an organization that small?” they asked.) (Because, yeah, the real life United States totally wouldn’t care about a couple hundred unknown people running around with guns, killing whoever they felt like.) So I upped the number by a couple hundred. Then, when that still wasn’t believable, had to up it again.

Your in-story motivations have to be larger than life. They have to be impossible to disprove or disagree with. You have to move beyond realistic and justifiable–to indisputable.

So: raise the stakes.

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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4 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: Raising the Stakes

  1. I have such a hard time with motivation…the result being that no one has a clue why the villain is evil in the first place. Great advice! I will have to work on this. Maybe it has something to do with why my plot doesn’t make any sense anymore…

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    • It’s so hard, but once you figure out the motivations for the various players in the story, I’ve found writing/revising/making the story make sense becomes SO MUCH easier. Good luck!

      Like

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