|courtesy of John Smarch Photography|
Janet here. There’s so much to learn about writing a romance novel. To name a few: Storytellers must give the hero and heroine strong book-length goals, motivations and conflicts. Characters should be strong and active, not victims. Everything that happens in a story should feed into the plot. No tea scenes allowed. In each scene, the point of view characters should have goals that fit their book-length goal in some way.
Whew, the craft "To Do" list is long, but today I want to talk about the importance of raising stakes. If we hope to keep our readers turning pages, we have to keep making things worse. Don’t you love that we romance writers have two story people to torture?
Well, maybe not, especially if you’re stuck in a scene trying to figure out what to do next to up the stakes and make our characters worry so our readers will worry, too.
I’m guessing most writers—even Seat of the Pantsters—have a general idea of events in key scenes like the crisis, black moment and climax. The premise and the characters’ goals seem to demand these pivotal scenes. Other scenes may not have that desperate, must take action or all will be lost intensity. But without something happening that worries our characters, we won’t give readers what they’re looking for—conflict.
Not every scene is a cliffhanger so how do we make things worse for our story people in every scene? We are able to up the stakes by using what may appear on the surface as mundane goals, but for our characters the action required can carry a big wallop. By that
I mean every time the stakes are raised, our characters are shoved into disquiet or anxiety or even terror and that forces them to confront their deepest fears.
There are countless ways to ratchet the tension by using the elements of story. To come up with ideas on ways to raise the stakes you might want to ask yourself some questions. To come up with the answers we need to know our characters well.
How can things get worse?
· How can this feed into the characters’ deepest fears?
· How can I make these characters face what scares them most?
Even ordinary goals can up the conflict and make things tougher on our characters.
· Use the Plot.
The stakes are raised when another character thwarts the pursuit of the characters’ goals. Or the hero and heroine’s goals clash. Or a looming deadline adds pressure. Or a character intentionally or unintentionally stirs up past hurts and buried guilt.
|Fabric Storyteller from Colorado|
· Use the Romance. Remember the romance is not the plot. The romance complicates the plot.
Attraction in a romance is good, right? Not when the attraction is unwelcome, complicates or makes things worse. Attraction is a fun way to strike terror in the hearts of our characters and put them in self-protective mode.
· Use the Motivations.
Create events that threaten to expose the character’s motivations, especially when those motivations are not laudable or dredge up a past the characters can’t face.
Use the Faith Thread
You will up the stakes when a character with faith is dismayed to be attracted to a character without faith. Or when a character's actions prove her faith is shaky. Or when churchgoers fight the character’s worthy goal.
Use the Setting.
The setting can trigger upsetting memories that up the stakes.
I will give examples of using these devices to up the stakes in scenes with mundane goals from my novel Wanted:A Family. In this story, pregnant widow Callie’s book-length goal is housing unwed mothers. Orphan carpenter Jake’s book-length goal is to find his birth mother.
Again his gaze roamed the house. “I’ll restore this beauty for a roof over my head and three meals a day, a price most folks appreciate.”
She appreciated the price all right. But he was still a stranger. “I've got to wonder why a man with your experience would work without a wage. I’ll still have to say no.”
Of all the nerve! She glared at him. “I’m perfectly capable of handling whatever task I set my mind to.”
His eyes held a flicker of respect. “I’m sure that’s true, if setting your mind to a task got it done. But, this job requires more brawn than brains.” He winked, bold as brass. “That makes me perfect for the job.”
Aghast at the rush of attraction that shot through her, Callie folded her arms across her chest, more determined to send this rogue packing.
“One day I want a business of my own. Why not give me a chance to test my mettle by bringing this Victorian back to life?”
Though he’d used that spiel to manipulate her, she couldn't argue with his logic. Fixing up her house would prove his ability and allow her to keep her house.
Besides, she didn't see anyone else lined up to help her.
If the house wasn't safe, Martin’s parents would insist she live with them, putting an end to Callie’s dream. What would happen to Elise and her baby then?
In the next excerpt I use the PLOT to up the stakes. Jake’s scene goal is to fix Callie’s porch, again an ordinary action, but the job fits his book-length goal of finding his mother. When Jake is interrupted by Commodore Mitchell,Callie comes out to deal with her father-in-law, a difficult man who is fighting her goal so doesn't want Jake repairing the house.
“I appreciate your concern, Commodore, but I've already arranged for Mr. Smith to do the work,” Callie Mitchell tapped the toe of her serviceable shoe on the newly laid porch floor. “His work speaks for him.”
“Let’s have that tea,” Callie’s mother-in-law said. “Please.”
Ignoring his wife, Mitchell frowned. “You’re hardly a good judge of character, Callie. The last man you hired ransacked the place and took every cent in the house.”
Jake took a step forward. “Where I come from, a man speaks kindly to a lady.”
Mitchell turned suspicious eyes on Jake. “And where is that, Smith?”
“Does it matter? I believe good manners are the same everywhere.”
“I’ll tell you what I believe. A drifter has something to hide.” He smirked. “As soon as someone gets close to his secret, that’s when he leaves.” He turned to Callie. “Reckon I’ll stop at the sheriff’s office. See what he knows about ‘Smith’ here.”
He thrust the bundle at his daughter-in-law, then took his wife’s arm and stomped down the walk.
The threat tore through Jake, heating his veins. Even if the sheriff didn't find anything on him that didn't mean he wouldn't come around asking questions. It wouldn't be long until his past caught up with him and forced him out of town.
Can see how the encounter with Commodore has raised the stakes for Jake and has put fear in Jake’s heart?
In the following excerpt, Elise pleaded with Jake to accompany her and Callie to church in hopes of taking the attention off Elise's first time back to church since her pregnancy became public knowledge. Jake agrees, and protecting Elise becomes his scene goal. But, the setting awakens bad memories in Jake and worse he's getting involved in the life's of others, the last thing he wants. Especially when these women are making him see the difficulties a single mother would've had raising a child.
|Clay storyteller from New Mexico|
Jake rose from the pew and stepped aside, letting Callie and Elise lead the way. As in jail and the towns he’d stopped in since his release, he felt eyes on his back. A stranger would naturally create curiosity. How long before those stares turned hostile? And curiosity became judgment?
Why he’d agreed to stay for the meal baffled him. With an instinct that rarely failed, Jake sensed few would welcome Elise or him into the fold. Fine. He’d never seen anyone until Callie do more than mouth their faith anyway.
When Gerald Swartz had picked him out from the lineup of orphans, right after Jake’s sixteenth birthday and taken him home, Jake had believed he’d attained his childhood dream. As long as he could remember, his fantasies had centered on having a family, a home, perhaps sharing a room with a brother or two. At last, someone wanted him.
They’d wanted him all right.
To work from sunup to sunset handling every imaginable chore they threw at him. Eager to please, he’d slept in the barn, bathed in the creek, worn hand-me-down clothes, done exactly as told without complaint, certain he’d earn their trust and prove he wouldn't be a burden.
Soon they’d include him in the tight circle of family.
Soon never came.
Not that the Swartz’s were cruel. They’d filled his belly. Had taken him to church and sent him to school, exactly as the rules required. But he’d never been welcomed in. He’d never spent a single night under their roof. He’d never received an affectionate hug or a personal word.
Each Sunday, they’d sat in their church pew, nodding at the message of love, but never showed him a speck of it by word or deed. The night of his seventeenth birthday, he’d run away. Better to expect nothing than to live with unfulfilled hope. Better to learn a trade and earn a wage than depend on scraps of a family that kept him out. Better to go through life a loner than count on anyone.
Hadn't Susan given him further proof of that?
One church visit brought it all back. If these folks resembled the people he’d spent that year with, they were welcome to their songs. Welcome to their sermons. Welcome to their God.
Hypocrisy. All of it.
He couldn't wait to leave, to reject the stifling pretense of piety, but he couldn't desert Elise and Callie in case they needed him.
Jake’s attitude about churchgoers and faith won’t endear him to Callie. Yet underneath, he's conflicted by his anger at God.
In the next excerpt, Jake’s goal is to finish repairs on the stair railing, but that’s not his true motivation and he almost gets caught, upping the stakes:
But the invitation gave him an excuse for finishing the railing, the little job a convenient ploy to get into the house early.
On silent feet, Jake moved down the hall toward the library. The knowledge Callie trusted him alone in her house tweaked his conscience, but seeking the woman who gave him birth wouldn't bring Callie harm.
At the last door on the right, he turned the knob. Inside the library, he strode to the desk. He’d leave the door open, listen for Callie’s return.
The first stack of newspapers looked recent, but over to the side a pile, brittle and yellowed with age, looked promising. He’d start there. Rummaging through the stack, he discovered the newspapers dated decades before his birth.
His hand moved to another stack, yellowed but in better condition. His throat clogged. This stack might hold the information he sought. Flipping through the dates, he located the year 1877. With shaking hands, he looked for May 21, 1877. His birthday.
Or so he’d been told.
A squeak of the floorboards overhead. Jake jerked to his feet. One of the women would soon arrive downstairs. He straightened the newspapers and eased the door closed after him.
He made it to the foyer, grabbed the cloth and polished the banister, revealing the soft glow of the wood’s patina just as Callie made the landing.
In all of these excerpts the scene goals required ordinary actions, but, they still upped the stakes for the Point of View character. Notice how raising the stakes bonds readers to our characters.
Leave a comment for a chance to win a $10 Amazon Gift Card. I brought breakfast sandwiches, melon, coffee and tea for breakfast. Pull up a chair and let’s chat about ways you raise the stakes. Or tell me how many kids each of the storytellers has listening to her oral history. Aren't they cute?