HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL: Part 3 – A High Stakes Plot

May 22, 2010

So I win Bad Blogger of the Year Award for my silence over the past 10 days. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be banging out my every thought and movement on the blogosphere, but it’s just too busy around here to do that (as you can probably guess since I’m writing this on a Saturday morning when sensible mortals are out grocery shopping).
Last weekend was NESCBWI up in Fitchburg, Mass – a great 24-hour visit (including nearly 3 hours of plane delay) incorporating a bunch of manuscript critiques, even more query critiques, and a really enjoyable panel with old friend Ammi-Joan Paquette of Erin Murphy and new friend Edward Necarsulmer IV of McIntosh & Otis. I love doing these events – meeting writers (many of whom I’ve now met on several occasions around the country) and faculty, which this time included Alexandra Cooper of S&S, Caroline Abbey of Bloomsbury, and Molly O’Neill of Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins (+ lots more). The keynote from Cynthia Leitich Smith was to die for – she is such a funny, wise, pertinent speaker, so if you ever get a chance to hear her in person do grab it and go. And if you are one of the few US or UK writers not tuned in to her invaluable blog, take a look and sign up – you’ll learn so much about this business: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/

Then straight on into an extraordinarily busy week in which, very weirdly, almost everything I’ve spent weeks/months awaiting arrived in the space of a few days. Very exciting to have strong interest on a debut submission just 12 hours after it went out on Monday (now that’s what you dream of!) and Julia over in the UK is also awaiting a promised offer, so we may pull off the double. But right now it’s back to pile-driving through the reading and editing – big, fat, challenging manuscripts lie around me and that’s when it all gets exciting!

So, let’s get on with Part 3 of my blogathon on HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. This week – A High Stakes Plot. And oh, how dear this is to my heart. Because so often I see queries, partials and fulls where the writing is nice, but the story just doesn’t quite leap off the page because the plotting isn’t high-stakes enough.

In other words, what do your characters stand to win or lose? Or let’s say that a little more emphatically because it is so important:

WHAT DO YOUR CHARACTERS STAND TO WIN OR LOSE??????

A novel isn’t always like real life. In real life things often meander along. Many of us don’t live hugely exciting lives. And yet – probably many of us DO know what it feels like to have something happen that is completely game-changing. A dilemma that leads to a forked path. A moral issue so tough to resolve that real anguish is involved. A question about who you love most and what that is going to mean. A choice between complacency and courage, hesitation and action, growth or stagnation.

There, I knew you would understand what I mean by high stakes!

I had one of my own brushes with high stakes a few years ago when confronted with a choice: stay in London working my way up the corporate ladder in a place where I was secure, known and respected. Or take the leap to the USA and create a life, a business, a vision that would lead me to places I couldn’t even guess. Yes, I understand high stakes – and risk.

If you are a fiction writer your characters must also face high stakes – or I’d almost guarantee your story is going to be dull. As readers we – and children/teens even more so – want to be gripped. It is your job, dear author, to grip us!

So, think through the stakes of your story. Work them out carefully, seed them into your subplots, and lay out those stakes in such a way that they escalate, building and building the tension, right through to your final denouement.

Writers take very different views on outlining. Personally, I think some kind of outline is invaluable. If you find a chapter breakdown useful, then do it – though I must confess that I hate reading them and can quite understand if you hate writing them. Look, it doesn’t have to be something that detailed.

What I’m talking about is some kind of structural route map, an A-Z in whatever form works for you, so you know just where you’re heading. And especially, so you have a fairly clear idea of what the climax and ending are going to be. A good outline will prevent your story from running out of steam or getting very confused.

Now, I can already hear some of you saying, ‘But Sarah, I am writing a LITERARY novel, it is LYRICAL and LUMINOUS, not some mass-market thriller – surely my characters don’t NEED all this drama in their lives?’

Aha, I am ready to answer you – because I believe there are different kinds of high stakes. Let’s take two Greenhouse novels (why would I not? This may encourage you to buy and read them and I lose no opps to promote our authors):

Sarwat Chadda’s DEVIL’S KISS (Hyperion) is a big, blockbusting thriller so no surprise that its protagonist, 15-year-old Bill SanGreal, has a life completely littered with high stakes. She’s fallen for a guy who turns out to be a lying, cheating fallen angel, after all. It’s her job to save London from a reenactment of the tenth plague of Egypt. To do that she must sacrifice the only boy she’s ever cared for – just as they’ve realized their love for each other. For poor Billi, the stakes are whopping – love or the world? Evil or the good of humanity? Sheesh, Sarwat.

But then let’s take Val Patterson’s THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE (Clarion) – jewel-like in language, acute in its perceptions. So much here is inward for Cyan, the book’s protagonist, as she struggles to find her way after her father’s mysterious death at sea. There is a ‘gulf as wide as the Caribbean’ between her mother and herself, and unless she can bridge it she will never find emotional freedom, health, fulfillment and her path in life. The stakes are high and we can’t help but read on to the moment of breakthrough. We know instinctively, in a quite different way to DEVIL’S KISS, that Cyan’s life is in great danger.

Wherever your work comes in the literary spectrum, I believe you need high stakes. The high stakes of outward challenge and danger. Or the equally (but different) high stakes of emotional survival and growth.

Want to see your story grow in pace and tension? Start staking!

And next time: HOW TO WRITE THE BREAKTHROUGH NOVEL: Part 4 – A Deeply Felt Theme.

Now I’ve got to dash – look, even literary agents need groceries!

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