Tuesday, March 01, 2011

When the stakes are life and death

I seem to need pretty high stakes to make a lifestyle changing resolution and stick to it.

Take exercise for instance. I want to feel good and look my best, but that wasn't enough to get me exercising regularly in my twenties. Then I had cancer at 30, which was cured, but the treatment put me at high risk for other types of cancers. Being well warned that 15 to 20 years out someone like me typically encounters cancer again, I decided I wanted to be as strong as possible physically if/when that day comes. So I've exercised almost daily for the past twelve years. It's become a way of life. Short term benefits are that in my 40s I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, and finally I can keep up with my husband on our mountain climbing forays. I couldn't do that in my twenties.

All that's to say, I think it would be far better if it didn't take life and death stakes for me to "get up off the page" of my life and go out to meet those goals. But I'm like my characters that way. They too require high doses of motivation, where the stakes are life and death, to get up off the pages of a novel and live.

So Make It Worse

In his outstanding book The Fire in Fiction (one of my favorite writing craft books. Read it!), agent Donald Maass writes "In many manuscripts the protagonist's motivation is shallow. We do not believe that protagonist is driven to action, and often the action to which the protagonist is driven is less than it could be. Pump up the motivation. Pump up the response. You may feel afraid of going too far. In fact, in most manuscripts the protagonist does not do enough."

From all I've read of Maass' advice to writers over the years, the main take away I've gleaned is always to make it worse. Make the story stakes higher whenever possible. Make the antagonist stronger*. Take away all the protagonist's props. Make it life and death, which doesn't necessarily mean the protagonist's physical life is in jeopardy if she doesn't reach her story goals. Maybe it's her reputation that will die. Maybe it's her dream. Her hope. Her relationship. Her career. Her eternal soul. Whatever it is, it needs to be of utmost importance to the protagonist, or it won't come across as compelling to the reader.

*Don't forget that antagonist. He has to have a believable motivation for thwarting the protagonist. It won't work in most stories to make a villain oppose your protagonist simply because they are "bad." Delve into that character's past and find the motivation that will make them seem the protagonist in their own eyes at least. Make them convinced that setting themselves against your protagonist is the right thing to do. Or if not the right thing (how about an antagonist who's going against his own conscience?), then the life or death course he must follow or experience a loss, a death, of something he holds dear.

Motivation is a crucial component of a successful novel, for main characters, but also for secondary characters whose actions help drive the plot. Dig deep and take the time you have to in order to explore your characters' histories. I've been known to write journal entries from various characters, even minor ones who have a role to play but aren't viewpoint characters, in which they spill their guts about what they want, and why they see themselves as in the right, or the victim, or compelled to take some action that's going to nudge (or shove) the story plot and my protagonist in a certain direction.

And perhaps don't be too quick to snatch at the first motivation that comes to mind. My talented writing acquaintance Beth Shope* knows the wisdom of making many passes over a scene, or an idea for a plot turn, before moving on to be sure she's delving deep into her creative well where the richer and most refreshing story layers lie:
It's a slow process, though. There are days when I envy those writers who can charge ahead. But if I do that, what ends up on the page is whatever happened to be floating on the surface of my mind--stale stuff, boring ideas, flat word choices. Pond scum. I have to spend time with it, diving deep to fresher waters (i.e., shaping and revising) to discover more original material.

If I moved on without doing that, not only would I miss the story, I'd have an entire novel's worth of pond scum to revise. And I'm not willing to do that. It's kind of like building a structure right the first time vs doing a slap-dash thing that will later have to be completely taken apart to fix it.

Every writer's process is different, but like Beth I find that if I forge ahead too quickly, either through the plotting stage when I'm working out each character's motivation for the actions they take in the novel, or in the scene-by-scene stage, then I'm bound to miss that unexpected phrase or nuance of emotion that crops up in the tenth or twelfth pass over a section that changes something as significant as the tone of the entire story, or perhaps shows me a deeper level of motivation I might never have seen had I rushed ahead.

I'm back to add a link to an excellent post on the subject of upping a protagonist's stakes in a novel, by Donald Maass, over at Writer Unboxed.  What Are You Afraid Of?

*Beth Shope's story Dragon's Eye is published in the Lords of Swords fantasy anthology among "the works of recognized masters Tanith Lee and "cult" favorites John C. Hocking and D. K. Latta, alongside rising stars E. E. Knight and Howard Andrew Jones."


  1. Excellent stuff here, Lori. A much needed reminder. I'm having trouble finding my new protagonists motivation so maybe I'll have to write one of those journal entries you suggested. I'm also feeling the pressure to push too fast. I'm working on a new proposal and need to write the synopsis. I need to do get this done soon and don't have the time to let the plot mature as I would like it to. I hope it won't come across as too vague and weak, but I won't be able to fill in many of the details until I actually write the story.

  2. Great post, Lori. "Writing the Breakout Novel" by Donald Maass is my all-time fave writing book - but I haven't yet read "The Fire in Fiction." TBR!

    I also love the quote from Beth Shope. I totally agree about "building it right the first time." I'm such a slooooooow writer as a result... but you're right, sprinting through the first draft often equals major reconstruction work later.

    What a journey you've had!

  3. Thanks for sharing your writing journey; I love how you connected it with the "stakes" in your own life. Really inspirational!!!

  4. Hey, Lori, thanks for the plug! :)

    Don Maass, at one of his workshops, once assigned an exercise that went something like this:

    Take any scene in which the POV character is performing some action or making a major decision. The bigger and more important the scene, the better.

    Write down what is motivating your character in that scene. First thing that pops into your head.

    Write down a secondary motivation and a third and maybe a fourth, if you can think of one. You may have to dig deep.

    Then take the last motivation, the one you had to dig for, and rewrite the scene making that one the primary motivation.

    This can lead to unexpected depths and insights into character. The motivation you listed first may be a perfectly good one. But it's also the most obvious one. What happens if your character is really acting because of the seemingly trivial motive you thought of last?

  5. Carla, when working with a large cast of characters, especially, I've found the first person journal entry a great help in keeping secondary characters in character and on track... and also showing me if they even have a good enough reason for demanding their stage time. Hope that proposal and synopsis is coming along well. I like to write my proposal in an outline form first, so I can see it as a series of steps, then write something more organic based on the outline. No matter how you come at it, synopses are hard.

  6. Karen, if you like Writing the Breakout Novel, you are bound to get a lot out of The Fire in Fiction. Of the two I prefer the latter, though both are tremendously helpful.

  7. Cheryl, Thank you! I so appreciate getting comments like yours. Sometimes I wonder if anything I natter on about here actually connects or resonates with anyone. :)

  8. Beth,

    Thanks for sharing that bit of Maass wisdom. I will, in fact, put it into practice for my current scene, because I think there IS more to a monumental life altering choice my character is about to make than the surface reason. I've been writing full steam toward this choice for a month and here I am facing it probably in tomorrow's writing session. No coincidence you've reminded me of this exercise, I'm thinking.