Guest blogger Tracy Holczer continues her discussion of “quiet books.”
Part 3– Raising the Stakes
Oh that we character-driven fiction writers could just write about our characters all the live-long day without actually having to write plot. But alas. No one is that interesting. Something must be at stake for your character. When you know your character intimately, you can write meaningful stakes.
I always start with a character bio. I have to know the family dynamic and key moments from my character’s past that have shaped them into the person they are. These bios will tell me where the character’s weak spots are and therefore, the best ways to torture them.
This also gives me a pretty good clue as to the protagonist’s problem/goal/yearning. This yearning has come about as a result of something they are missing in their lives. Often I look at contemporary characters as coming to the story with a partial set of tools – like maybe they are missing the Screwdriver and the Wrench of Life. And so the story must give them that.
This lack is sometimes called the baggage your character comes schlumping in with. It could be debilitating shyness, or the loss of a best friend to another kid, it could be having to face some Big Truth about life or family that the child isn’t ready for. But the events of your story will get them there.
To use Winn Dixie again, Opal’s baggage isn’t that she may not get to keep Winn Dixie, or that she’s had to move to a new town, or even that she has a strained relationship with her father. It’s that she was abandoned by her mother. The events of the story help move her to a place where she can face this devastating truth. What’s at stake is what will happen to her internal landscape if she doesn’t.
So in this way, all stories are a mystery of sorts. Once you have discovered what is ultimately at stake for your character, you can work backwards from there. What is the most horrible thing that can happen to a child suffering the abandonment of her very own mother? Why put her in a brand spanking new town where she has to start from scratch building a whole bunch of new relationships. Add to that a pathetic, but loveable dog (who has been abandoned himself) and a strained relationship with her father, and you have rising stakes.
It also helps me to think of stakes as triggers. We all have them. Sometimes we get triggered in a small way and think, “Crapola – that was bad. I need a couple bites of ice cream right now.” Other times we get triggered in a big way and come to three hours later wearing a ripped t-shirt, our skin still tinged a bit green. A story should start with ice-cream-bite triggers and build to Incredible-Hulk triggers. Those triggers bring about change in a character’s viewpoint. This is where they change bit by bit which gets them from A to Z.
Okay now I’m exhausted. Tomorrow, some final thoughts on story and a list of my very favorite contemporary books.