Monday, 8 July 2013

Better Storytelling Part Three



So far in this series we’ve looked at what a character wants and who’s getting in the way. Another important element to consider is what’s at stake.

This is something most writers have a fairly good grasp of. If a character has something to lose then they are more likely to get up off the sofa and do something about it. If it’s really important to them they might even take a few risks.

But that isn’t what this post is about.

As well as the big important thing that comes to mind when thinking of the premise (winning the girl, saving the planet, finding the treasure), a story is made up of lots of little consequences and repercussions.

While these smaller threats and risks will be of varying levels (falling off a ledge to being late for a date to eating another doughnut) what very often happens is that although failure carries a penalty the character very much doesn’t want to pay, the character never actually fails.

The writer wants to raise the tension, create some suspense or a sense of urgency, so they raise the stakes. Which is a good idea. If they don’t make it across town at rush hour the puppies will all die or the wedding dress will get sold to someone else or whatever.

The character frets about it, emotes, takes ridiculous risks, and then manages to do what needs to be done and the consequences never materialise.

A skilful writer can hover on the edge of failure so the tension and dread are almost as bad as the thing being dreaded. But if this pattern is repeated too often, the reader will start seeing the character as having something of a charmed life and good luck fatigue can set in.

A character needs stakes in every part of a story. Every action should have consequences, some of which should be quite painful and the character should very much try to avoid them. And you, as the writer, should not allow this.

Because there are a variety of very useful storytelling devices that you gain from allowing your characters to screw up and suffer the consequences. Not nearly suffer. Not a close shave. Actually happen.

I’m not talking about character building and growth through adversity, although those things also result from hardship.

My point is that although you have chosen this character to be the star of your story, the reader has no real reason to root for your choice. A guy wants the girl of his dreams; a girl wants a promotion at work; a scientist want to be first to invent a time machine.

So what? He’ll meet someone else; she’ll get another job; I’m not sure ‘first’ is really a viable concept when it comes to time machines since you can always go back and change history, but anyway, so another scientist makes the discovery. Life goes on (although not necessarily in the same order as before).

However, once you have a character fail and then get up and try again, they become a much more integrated part of the story. It isn’t just an arbitrary goal, it’s cost them something and in order to redress the balance certain actions need to be taken.By them.

Only this person can be the heart of the story because only this person has suffered to be here.

It doesn’t just have to be straight up failure leading to terrible loss. A character can get what they were aiming for and still suffer as a result, either through unintended consequences or sacrifice. If a guy gets the job he always wanted and discovers he’s being relocated to Antarctica, or in order to save the Earth from an asteroid Australia has to be destroyed, then a win can be a loss.

It can be difficult for some writer to allow this kind of punishment on a favourite character, but it should be remembered they can still win in the long run, so it’s not like you’re hanging them out to dry.

If Tony wants to ask Jill out on a date but is afraid of the embarrassment if she says no, then when he finally builds up the courage to ask she should definitely say no. In fact it should be even worse than he feared.

The writer likes Tony. They want him to get what he wants. But you have to remember this is one step on Tony’s journey. At some point he may well get to date Jill. Or maybe someone infinitely better than Jill.

In order to become the person who succeeds, you first have to know what it is to be the person who fails. Not from the sidelines, up close and personal. All those consequences should be faced. What’s at stake should be lost.

Then two things can happen. Either Tony gives up and you don’t have a story, or Tony finds a way to move forward. And it’s in this change that you will have your reason for why it’s this character’s story that’s being told.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.
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As summer is here (sort of) I'll be reducing my posts to once a week so I can work on my tan. See you next Monday.

24 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Real life is made up of small losses and defeats. And big ones. Those set backs make it real for the reader.

Sarah Foster said...

Sometimes you need a little bad to make the good more satisfying. If everything goes right for the character, not only will the story not be as interesting, but the reader will have a harder time connecting with him.

mooderino said...

@Alex - it also makes it more rewarding when the character pulls through in the end.

@Sarah - things come into focus much better when things are going badly, i find.

Jay Noel said...

If you star keeps winning, the reader will get bored. There's no tension in that.

mooderino said...

@Jay - nearly losing can create some tension, but it ends up feeling like a ploy if it never gets beyond that.

Al Diaz said...

I'm a sadist, I think. I'm not happy if I don't make the life of my characters as hard and difficult as I can. I don't really pamper them much. Wondering if I belong to the psycho group of writers.

Lynda R Young said...

Australia flattened by an asteroid???? But... but... ;)
Great points!

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

@Lynda - Of course we would save the best people first. Not the rugby team, obviously.

Elise Fallson said...

Sometimes I feel I punish my characters too much. Like so many aspects in writing, finding the right balance can be difficult.

Also, tanning is hot. Don't forget your sunscreen. (;

Kaye Draper said...

This is a great reminder. Try/fails are a must!

mooderino said...

@Elise - what's important, I think, is how the character responds. A really tough situation dealt with how you expect is no better than an easy one.

Golden brown here I come...

@Kaye - thanks. Yes/I agree.

nutschell said...

I used to find it difficult to mess with my characters' lives--until I discovered that every issue I threw at them only made the story better:) Now I have no trouble throwing my characters in mortal danger, if it'll elevate my story.
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@nutschell - I think you also learn to like your characters more if they can handle what you throw at them.

Damyanti said...

A skilful writer can hover on the edge of failure so the tension and dread are almost as bad as the thing being dreaded. But if this pattern is repeated too often, the reader will start seeing the character as having something of a charmed life and good luck fatigue can set in.


So very true.

Michael Offutt, "Johnny on the Spot" said...

The thing I have the hardest time with is killing off characters. It's harder than I thought it would be. But by doing so, I think it increases the stakes for everyone that's left in a book because the reader knows that you'll go there.

Mama J said...

As a reader, I love a bit of tension in a book. It's what keeps me turning the pages.

Sarah Allen said...

Great, thought provoking post, as always. And I love those pictures.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Swati Chavda said...

A great reminder. I think I need to take a print out of this and paste it on the wall in front of my computer.

Rachna Chhabria said...

"A character needs stakes in every part of a story. Every action should have consequences, some of which should be quite painful and the character should very much try to avoid them."

I need to keep this badly in mind while writing, cause I feel that in several scenes the tension is sorely missing.

mooderino said...

@damyanti - although walking the line can be quite thrilling when done right.

@mike - it seems to be a bit of a trend at the moment to kill off major characters. A lot easier to do if you have a very large cast.

@Mama - eventually though it has to pay off, and that's when it can be very tempting to just let the character win.

@Sarah - cheers. (If you click on the pictures they'll take you to the artist's site - lots more pictures there).

@swati - hope it helps.

@Rachna - it doesn't always have to be a matter of life and death, could just be not wanting to burn the toast.

Charmaine Clancy said...

This is so good! I get frustrated in romances where the stakes are just not getting together, like you say, I figure they can find someone else. But if I know the main character has a lot invested in this relationship, maybe they gave up something big for it, then I'm rooting for them. Spot on.

Mary Gottschalk said...

Love this post .... not just the good advice about keeping the tension up, but the profound truth that success isn't very meaningful if your character does experience and get beyond failure. In fact, I think that point is relevant to real life as well as fiction!

Great series ... keep it going!

Melissa Sugar said...

Sound advice. As an unpublished and new(er) writer, I struggled with this for the longest time. I'm getting better at it. One of the biggest problems that I find with stakes, in books that I don't care for, is that the protagonist's motivation is not enough. I hate when I find myself saying something like, "Why doesn't this person just go home or forget about this goal, nothing life altering or earth shattering will happen if she doesn't continue with this goal."

I loved your advice: "Only this person can be the heart of the story because only this person has suffered to be here." That one line made me reconsider a scene that I just completed. Thanks.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - I think for the people involved the mystery of love is enough, but readers need a bit more than eyes meeting across a crowded room.

@MAry - cheers, will do.

@Melissa - wanting something just isn't enough for me when I read a book. It's got to be driven by something more urgent.

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