This is the space where I will be posting thoughts about writing and sharing excerpts from past lectures. Also, check out my process and thoughts on writing each of my novels in the links above.
The following is an excerpt from a lecture given at Vermont College of the Fine Arts(VCFA). I will post more of the lecture in the following weeks.
Crafting Real Stakes
We must keep readers rooted to their spot, forcing them to turn page after page. How better than by pointing a stake directly at their heart? Each character, each chapter, each story hinges on creating that perfect balance of desires and stakes. When we put our characters or their needs in peril, torturing them with the appropriate instrument of conflict, fear or pain, then we can hold our readers captive.
What is at stake when we writers cannot create a story that grabs the reader, makes them turn pages eagerly, keeps them up late at night? What is at stake when we do not hold our reader’s heart, beating quickly in time to our action or dabbing their eyes in emotional moments? What is at stake each time a reader picks up a book? Death. The story and characters will live or die all based on a simple page turn or the hollow moan of two covers closing together. Death. Otherwise known as the innocent cheese sandwich(imagine your reader tossing your book aside to go make themselves a nice cheese sandwich instead of reading your story).
So why do so many stories suffer from cheese sandwichits? Is it pacing? Is it a lack of strong character desire? Is it the conflict? Why do our stories fail to grab our reader? How come I just don’t care? Certainly, it could be a number of these issues in our work that could cause cheese sandwichitis, but one thing is certain. There wasn’t a stake pointed at the heart of the reader forcing them to turn page after page trembling with the desire to know if the character literally or metaphorically lives or dies in the face of their conflict. Stakes will draw your reader in and ward them away from that satisfying, scrumptious grilled cheese sandwich.
Are stakes like a sharpened tool? To pierce vampire hearts? Sure, those can be real stakes for vampires if you are writing a vampire novel. Or maybe you are imagining one of those fast paced action adventure stories where the hero has to bullet through time and space fighting off aliens to reach earth and then leap across oceans and mountains while pulling out his bow and arrow perfectly aimed at a magic apple which will stop the explosion that sets off a chain reaction of bombs all over the world thus ending humanity as we know it. The proverbial ticking time bomb. Sure that’s another stake. Or you might be picturing the lover standing on a train platform as the train whistle blows for the last time and she steps aboard just as her lover flings open the heavy wooden door calling her name as the train slowly pulls forward. Yes, if you are a sucker for lost love, this can be another stabbing stake to the heart.
In the best writing, humanity ceasing to exist is not good enough. We are looking for true stakes. One that is balanced and weighted, used with the utmost precision, so that it has a very personal consequence to your protagonist. When you find a true stake to wield in your story, it is a powerful and magnificent tool to behold. For a true stake acts like a spider’s thread both delicate and amazingly strong, weaving and connecting your protagonist’s heart with the heart of the reader. Once that connection has been made, watch those pages fly.
So how do we begin crafting our true stakes? It begins with character, suffering and desire.
To be continued...