What's at Stake?
Each main character of every story needs to be facing serious struggles for the story to keep the reader's interest.
Writers are continually told to create a life-and-death issue for the protagonist, but this "does not mean that every protagonist must face death in every story," says Nancy Ellen Dodd in her new how-to-write tome, The Writer's Compass.
"It means making the stakes as high as you can crank them so that to this protagonist at this time in his life on this day it feels like a life-and-death issue."
I see this problem in many writers' work I consult on.
I must admit that I have trouble with this very issue myself.
I like what Dodd has to say here: "The seriousness is not measured by whether the issue is life or death, rather by the intensity of the desire."
Dodd asks us to explore several issues in determining what the stakes of our story are:
1. What's at stake for your protagonist?
2. How serious is the outcome?
3. Is this the most important issue in the protagonist's life at this time, and will the outcome determine the course of his life to be the best or the worst it can be?
4. Is what's at stake organic to the characters and what really matters for this story?
5. Does what's at stake become more intense when you consider the setting, the people, the circumstances and the obstacles?
What's at stake for the main character definitely needs to made clear in the beginning of the story, before the character decides to jump into the action of act two.
According to Dodd, "The thread that pulls the reader through the story is knowing what's at stake for the protagonist if he or she falls."
A Sense of Urgency
One way to build a sense of urgency is create high stakes for your main character.
However, not every story is a thriller with a ticking time bomb.
Dodd also shares that we can create this sense of urgency in our story by tightening the story "to occur in as short a time period as possible. A story with a quicker pace tends to have more intensity than a slower-paced story."
Another way to increase the story's urgency, opines Dodd, is through "the goal you give the protagonist. Is there a time issue in that the goal needs to be accomplished or met by a certain date or time? If Jerry doesn't arrive in time, his best friend is going to marry the antagonist, who Jerry knows has three other wives."
Dodd says that this is "a countdown [but] of a different nature than a ticking bomb."
According to Dodd, "a countdown can also be accomplished by the way things are changing in the world or in the protagonist or in another character. If something doesn't happen to stop the change, it will soon be irreversible. Emotions developing from good to bad to worse can be a type of countdown."