THE CRAFT OF WRITING – JANUARY 2020
THE CRAFT OF WRITING – JANUARY 2020
26.2 STORY STAKES
by Kay DiBianca
January 13, 2020
If you want to learn something about story stakes, run a marathon. Anyone who’s trained for a marathon will tell you that you commit your life to the race. For months, everything else – your job, meals, sleep – becomes secondary. A good performance equals success. A slow finishing time means disappointment. And having to drop out of the race amounts to devastation.
When I secured a place in the 2010 London Marathon, I was thrilled. Frank and I were celebrating a significant anniversary that year, and I intended to honor our marriage by running my fastest marathon ever. I put together a 4-month training plan to guarantee success.
Obstacles popped up like adventure-killing jack-in-the-boxes. Our treadmill broke. Then I suffered a knee injury and had to lay off training for a while. No problem. Get healthy. Work harder.
Then disaster! Our flight to London was canceled when a volcano in Iceland erupted and sent a cloud of ash over Western Europe. It looked like I wouldn’t make it to the starting line, much less the finish!
After a few days, the skies cleared, and we caught another flight. But we were days behind schedule, and there was little time to prepare. After only a few hours of sleep, I woke up on race day exhausted and jet-lagged. I hauled myself to the starting area and felt a tired sense of relief when the gun sounded.
Everything went wrong. My GPS watch malfunctioned, and I couldn’t rely on it to pace myself. I got a side-stitch and had to stop occasionally to stretch. When I finally reached the 20-mile marker, way behind my scheduled pace, my back hurt and a blister was forming on my left heel. I was so hungry I would have snatched a sandwich from a spectator if I could have, but all I had were a couple of Gu gels.
But nothing hurt as much as my pride. I decided to drop out. Maybe I could save a little face by telling people I had to quit because of injury.
But give up? This was the race to honor our commitment to our marriage, and the marathon is an excellent metaphor for that very thing. With six miles to go, I made up my mind to cross the finish line even if I had to crawl. Even if I was the last person to get there. Even if the organizers had rolled up the mats and gone home, I knew one person would be waiting. And no matter how bedraggled I looked, Frank would smile and say, “Great job, honey!”
I trudged on, fantasizing about hamburgers and chocolate milkshakes, until I reached the finish line. It was my slowest marathon ever. A volunteer handed me a medal and a T-shirt, and I walked into the finishers’ area and saw Frank. He smiled, jogged over, and hugged me. “Great job, honey!”
It was my best marathon ever.
When I read H.R. D’Costa’s book “Story Stakes,” I immediately thought of my London Marathon experience. D’Costa includes eleven types of story stakes in her book and shows how to use them to increase tension and reader engagement.
I zeroed in on Stake Type #11: Hero Happiness. D’Costa defines it this way: “If he succeeds at the climax, and wins this prize, then his future happiness is ensured. If he fails, he will be devastated.” In reflecting on this definition, I began to see how we (and our characters) can easily set up a stake for ourselves that isn’t the real key to happiness, but we can use the resulting journey to shine a light on our own misconceptions.
No matter what genre we write in, the ability to keep our readers interested is fundamental to our success. Check out “Story Stakes” for yourself. It’s much more informative (and a lot easier) than running a marathon!
I’m excited to welcome H.R. D’Costa, author of Story Stakes, to this blog series.
A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa is an author and writing coach specializing in story structure and story stakes.
Through her website scribemeetsworld.com, her “deep dive” writing guides, and online course Smarter Story Structure, she provides novelists and screenwriters with practical tools to create stories that readers can’t put down.
Her popular resource, the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet, has been downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world.
Welcome, HRD, and thank you for joining us!
Hi Kay, first let me say thanks for inviting me to participate in your Craft of Writing series. I’m excited to be here!
How did you get interested in writing?
My interest in writing stems from all the reading I did as a kid. I loved the days when my dad would take me to the library. He’d hunker down at a table with a newspaper, while I would amass a stack of books. I’d gather so many that it was an adventure to get them to the checkout desk (and then to the car) without dropping any.
From all of that reading came a love for storytelling—and a desire to create my own stories to share with the world.
What made you decide to write books on the craft of writing?
That’s a long story!
Here’s the short version: I gave up an incredible opportunity and took a low-paying job with flexible hours so I would have enough time to write. However, I did anything but.
At the time, it was terrifying to face the blank page, so I kept putting it off.
Years later, I realized that to overcome my fear, I needed to (1) work on my inner critic and (2) improve my plotting skills.
Writing craft books emerged from item #2. Although I had read several writing guides, there were still some missing pieces. For example, I knew that a strong midpoint and “all is lost” moment would prevent the middle of my story from sagging…but when it came time to plot, I didn’t know exactly what to put in those places.
So I analyzed novels, screenplays, and films to look for answers, and to discover why some stories were so gripping—while others were easy to walk away from.
It seemed only natural to share what I had learned, whether that was through my blog at scribemeetsworld.com or through the more organized format of a writing guide.
What prompted you to write Story Stakes?
Interestingly enough, I didn’t initially set out to write a book on stakes at all.
I was actually working on a writing guide about how to craft a killer climax. When conducting my research, it became clear that stakes—the negative consequences of failure—were pivotal to creating a story climax that would thrill and delight readers.
As a result, I started to explore them more deeply. Frankly, I was startled by what I found. A lot of ink has been dedicated to plot, character, and theme…but hardly anyone talks about the stakes.
And yet, without them, readers won’t be emotionally invested in your story. You can have the most intriguing premise in the world, but without stakes, no one will feel like finishing your book. Along with structure, they’re the key to creating reader “glue.”
If your story feels flat or your beta-readers’ reaction to your book is lukewarm (but your character and plot seem solid), there’s a good chance it’s a stakes issue. Check to see whether you’ve:
- included stakes (they’re omitted more often than you might think!)
- formed a connection between readers and the stakes
- periodically reminded readers about the stakes
- raised the stakes
If you don’t know what to use for stakes in your story, and you’d like a convenient list of options, you can download this cheat sheet with 11 types of story stakes from my website.
What is the most difficult concept to get across to new authors?
I’m going to interpret difficult as meaning something new authors don’t want to hear, which is this: your readers come first, before even you.
If you do a quick search for speechwriting tips, you’ll come across advice to think about the big takeaway that you want your audience to have.
If you do a quick search for copywriting tips, you’ll encounter similar advice. The sales pages with the highest conversions focus on the pain points of the customer, and how your product will solve them.
The way I see it, novel writing is no different. If you want readers to buy your books, you need to take their expectations into account at some point—if not when you’re writing, then at least afterward.
To sum up the above three paragraphs: audience before speaker; customer before product; reader before author.
By putting readers first, it doesn’t mean that you write by committee or cater to the lowest common denominator. It just means that before you send your story out into the world, you ask yourself, Okay this was fun for me…but will it be fun for my readers?
What single piece of advice would you give to new authors?
The advice I’d give is to make sure that you work on cultivating the right mindset. In fact, I’d put that above even developing plotting and marketing skills.
With a healthy mindset, when you run into a thorny plot problem, you won’t give up on the manuscript (or perhaps on writing itself). Instead, you’ll persevere. You’ll power through.
Do that enough, and eventually you’ll become so good that your work can’t be ignored. Literary agents will reply to your query letters; the Amazon algorithms will show your books some love.
Put another way: they say overnight success is 10 years in the making. You need grit to make it through those 10 years.
Other than your own books, what book on the craft of writing would you recommend to our readers?
I really like Write Away by mystery novelist Elizabeth George. It emphasizes the importance of connecting your scenes through cause and effect, which is a good lesson to learn early on. Also, her book will train you to avoid writing scenes that are heavy on dialogue, but low on concrete details, so it just feels like two heads are talking to each other.
I’d also like to recommend Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s a great book to help you learn how to overcome the inner critic and enjoy the process of creating art. (I know you said one craft book, but because mindset is so important, I wanted to add it to the mix.)
What are some of your favorite works of fiction?
My all-time favorite book is Pride and Prejudice.
In terms of genre, currently I’m into YA romances like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han and The Distance Between Us by Kasie West.
I’m also a fan of mysteries, especially Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series (which is another reason why I love her writing guide—it explains how she plotted the books in the series).
What do you do when you want to get away from work?
When I want to take a break, I like to watch Graham Norton clips on YouTube.
The best episode is the one with Matt Damon, Bill Murray, and Hugh Bonneville. Search for it now; thank me later *wink*
I also like to bake, but since I’m trying to reduce my sugar consumption, I bake a lot less than I used to. I need to find a new hobby…green smoothies perhaps?
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
You can find more about me and my writing guides on my website scribemeetsworld.com.
If you want to develop your structure skills, check out my article on the 8 essential plot points in a script outline (don’t worry, the essential plot points are the same for novels).
After that, download the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet. At 18 pages, it’s comprehensive, but not overwhelming. And it’s free 🙂
If you want to explore story stakes, read this article on what stakes are and how to raise them. You can also download the cheat sheet with 11 types of story stakes that I mentioned earlier in the interview.
Thank you, HRD, for sharing your expertise with us!
Thanks again, Kay, for having me today. I wish you and your readers lots of luck with all your writing endeavors!
Great article! I downloaded the Worksheet and took a look…so excited to give it a try! I’d like to hear thoughts on how this works for a plotter vs a pantser. I’m not a plotter but I do need a general direction. The challenge with my first novel was having my stakes (and the escalating tension they cause) in the wrong order. A lot of my rewriting was due to the need to correct that problem and I’m working to avoid that in my current book.
And Kay, so proud of you for completing that marathon even though you knew it weren’t going to achieve your original goal. One day I’ll have to share the story of a 26 mile bicycle ride I did and how a text from my daughter kept me from giving up!
Thanks for the great content!
Lori, Thanks for stopping by. I know what you mean about having the story stakes in the right order. I also struggle with that in my writing.
I’d love to hear about your 26-mile bike ride! NPR had a spot on “Morning Edition” today about the benefits of training for a marathon! What timing. They mention that the benefits don’t come just from running, but from other forms of aerobic exercise like biking, rowing, etc. So keep it up and spread the word!
Thanks so much for stopping by, and for downloading the worksheet!
Regarding your question of plotters vs. pantsers…you can use the structure worksheet to get a sense of your structural turning points in advance. This should give you the general direction you’re looking for. But you can stop there, and wing everything else, which enables you to still enjoy the freedom of pantsing.
Also, if any of the questions feel too restrictive at the moment, you can set them aside for now and use them later, to evaluate your finished draft.
Oh, wow. The stakes issue you mentioned must’ve taken a lot of work to fix. At least you caught it, which is good.
One way to avoid this particular problem is to start with stakes that aren’t life-and-death (e.g. stakes of honor or justice) and then transition to life-and-death stakes (which includes things like loss of freedom or sanity) at the middle. Not sure if this will work for the plot of your current book, but definitely a technique to keep handy for future reference!
PS: Your marathon bike ride sounds like a great story 🙂
Oh my! Where to begin?
I downloaded the worksheet and Kindle edition of Story Stakes – can’t wait to dig in.
I visited your website too. Wow! The quick, pithy sentences pulled me along. Made me want to keep going. What an excellent demonstration of compelling prose. I hope everyone visits the worksheet page and your website, not only for the resources but to read the way you introduce them. What a wonderful lesson in avoiding a bunch of dense narrative. Fantastic! And I haven’t even gotten to the actual resources.
Thank you for tackling difficult problems such as story stakes and saggy middles. I think sometimes we gloss over these because we aren’t sure how to fix them, but high stakes and taut middles are critical to our readers’ enjoyment, aren’t they?
I’m reworking my second novel manuscript now, and I feel your guest spot on Craft of Writing is particularly timely for me. I want to spend some time with the book and the worksheet as I go through my novel’s most important revisions.
Thank you, HRD, and thank you, Kay!
Thank you so much for your kind words. They mean a lot. Truly.
You hit the nail on the head with your comment about high stakes and taut middles. They are critical to readers’ enjoyment…but they’re not easy to get right.
Maintaining escalation is tricky, which is one reason why I like to say writing a novel is harder than brain surgery 🙂
I wish you lots of luck with your revisions. I hope they go as smoothly as possible, and I’m thrilled that Story Stakes will be joining you for the ride!
Thanks so much!
LIsa, Thanks for stopping by. Yes, HRD’s website is a treasure trove of information. I hope everyone has a chance to visit.
To all of the rest of you: Lisa Simonds will be my guest in February. Lisa’s first book, “All In”, was released in 2019, and we’ll get a chance to learn from her experience. So stay tuned!
Thank you, Kay. I’m so excited!
I enjoyed reading your introductory remarks, Kay, and HR D’Costa’s interview.
The prep for the London Marathon including an interruption caused by an exploding volcano was wild!
HRD, your commitment to story stakes is broad and deep. In my mind it runs parallel to the idea that if we want our readers to become immersed in our story, we need to get immersed in it too.
Nice jobs, both of you, Kay and HRD!
Thank you, PUGSmaster! Your comments are always insightful. Have a good week and Happy Writing!
Thank you so much, PUGSmaster.
Truth be told, I initially underestimated the value of story stakes. But once I realized their importance, I wanted to explore them in depth. Definitely a great topic to get immersed in!
PS: Like you, I thought the volcano’s impact on Kay’s marathon prep was a fascinating detail.
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