Last week in That “Aha” Moment I talked about how you never know when a good idea will strike, and also about when you may have to let one of those ideas go. I closed by telling you how my new Critique Partner and a professional editor both pointed out what was missing from our book, and that I would share with you what that was, in case it applied to you, too. It was really quite a game-changer.
What’s been missing from my daughter’s and my book were the stakes.
In fiction, this means the goal or outcome the hero wants. And more importantly, what is in the way of achieving that goal? Another word for this is “suspense.”
To be fair, we did eventually get around to adding in stakes to our novel by the time we got to the end. And we went back and diligently hinted at it in the early chapters, too.
This is, apparently, not sufficient.
Our first clue (ignored) was when we struggled to come up with a longline, or 35-word pitch. For sure, this is not easy under the best circumstances, but the crux of the pitch is the stakes. If you can’t figure out what your main character has at stake, there is a problem with your book.
We began writing THE LAST PRINCESS by the seat of our pants, without an outline, and letting the story evolve as we progressed. In fact, we never actually intended the story to include a villain, but one sort of appeared organically, and we added him to the story. In the end the final conflict is rather juicey and full of hard choices — stakes — but that suspense, that energy, that urgency, is simply not very apparent at the beginning.
It needs to be. In fact, I’d suggest that by page 50 (page 30 for children’s books) it should be clear to your reader what is at stake for the hero, and just as importantly, what will happen if she or he fails. And remember, failure is an option. It depends on what kind of book you want to write.
What does this look like? Imagine I told you I had a guaranteed winning lottery ticket worth millions, and I was willing to let you have it. Now, imagine I told you the only way to get it is to climb up the outside of the U.S. Capitol Building and retrieve it from the top of the dome. Before midnight tomorrow. Now you have some suspense. Can you do it? How will you do it in time? How will you get past security? Do you have the skill and equipment? What if you get caught?
It doesn’t have to be that dramatic. A woman is engaged to a horrible person but falls in love with a different, wonderful man. But she must marry the first in order to save her dying sister. A boy has a dream of becoming the best cornet player in New Orleans, but he lives in poverty and can’t afford nice clothes to audition for the band.
So how do you sharpen the stakes? Pour on the pressure. The engaged woman learns the wonderful man loves her back, and he’s rich, too. But her fiancé is the only surgeon qualified to perform the life-saving operation. And when he gets jealous he drinks. The cornet player earns the money to buy a nice suit, but his mother loses her job and can’t afford to buy food for the family. If you really want to lay it on thick, add a time-bomb: The band auditions are this Friday, then the talent scout is leaving town. The sister’s condition is worsening by the day.
For our book, we need to put the conflict with the villain right up front, and make it clear what the hero has to lose — personally — if she fails to defeat him. That’s the thing about stakes, they have to be personal. It’s not enough to just save the kitten from the fire. The kitten has to be personally important to the hero. Ask yourself this question: What would happen to your hero if he/she fails? If their life could pretty much go on unchanged, your stakes aren’t high enough or personal enough.
This’s what was missing from our book. We had stakes, but they weren’t personal enough. It came own to saving other people or going back to her normal life. Not enough suspense. But now we know how to fix that. We’re going to have to let go of some of our favorite lines, even favorite scenes. But the results should help make our manuscript irresistible to readers — particularly agents.