Elle Cosimano discusses high-stakes plotting

May 27, 2013

I talk a lot with my clients about plotting, and we often get involved in editorial work and revisions on manuscripts before they go on submission. When new author Elle Cosimano entered my life with her query in February 2011, she had a strong idea and the makings of a great voice, but was about to embark on a journey into the wonders (and challenges) of intricate and high-stakes plotting. A journey that led to her gripping and emotionally powerful thriller, NEARLY GONE, being preempted in a 2-book deal by Kathy Dawson, a legendary and award-winning Penguin publisher. Kathy now has her own imprint, Kathy Dawson Books, and NEARLY GONE will be on her high-profile launch list which publishes in early 2014. You can read more about Elle Cosimano here.
Now Elle shares her thoughts on what she learned about plotting while writing and revising NEARLY GONE . . .

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This post is about high-stakes plotting.

This post is not about:
A) gratuitous violence,
B) exploding muscle cars, or
C) ridiculous sums of ransom money.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “I write quiet works of literary fiction, and the importance of high-stakes plotting does not apply to me,” then the answer is D) sit your lyrical ass down and keep reading. This post pertains to all of us.

Don’t get me wrong.

I get it. If you were to Google “high-stakes plotting”, you’d come away with pages of examples of “loss” in the form of death and destruction, and “gain” measured in simple monetary terms. These only serve to further our very black-and-white understanding of literary versus commercial fiction. I argue that the two, when done well, aren’t as mutually exclusive as we are led to believe.

So if A + B + C does not equal a high-stakes plot, then what does?

Forget wooden vampire-obliterating sticks for a moment, or the mountain of chips on a poker table. All good examples of stakes, but these aren’t the kind we’re talking about.

When it comes to plot, we define “stakes” as personal or emotional concerns of value. Notice, there is no quantifiable thing. Because we are not measuring an object to be won or lost, but rather the value of its emotional resonance. Heightening stakes is not about increasing the value of the physical things our characters want or stand to lose. It’s about tying those things to a deeper yearning – assigning each gain and loss a devastating or life-changing emotional impact.

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In his book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler says, “Desire is the driving force behind plot. The character yearns, the character does something in pursuit of that yearning, and some force or other will block the attempt to fulfill that yearning. …You cannot find a book on the bestseller list without a central character who clearly wants something, is driving for something, has a clear objective… You name the genre. Every story has a character full of desire.”

When I embarked on my first full re-write of Nearly Gone, Sarah (my agent) asked me, “What does your character want?” This was a transformative revelation for me. My character had been doing all these things – going through all these motions without any true sense of destination. The plot was fuzzy. It lacked direction, because the end goal didn’t resonate deeply enough to drive it. Truly knowing my characters meant not only understanding what they wanted, but why. I had yet to fully grasp what their physical wants and goals represented to them. What they yearned for — whether it be identity, a place in the universe, redemption, or connection with another — and what they were willing to risk for it. I had to dig beneath the surface to reveal a yearning strong enough to hold together a plot, and hold a reader’s attention.

Heightened stakes don’t have to do more. They have to mean more. They’re anchored in the character’s innermost fears and deepest desires. They make the reader care, so that we sit up and take notice when those desires are threatened.

And threatened they must be.

Because antagonists yearn, too. They have their own stakes, their own desires. Conflict lies at the intersection of these opposing desires. It’s this balance between the main character, and the counterbalance of a person or the world or events standing in her way that creates tension, and gives the plot focus.

Perhaps our misunderstanding of high-stakes plotting lies in the name we’ve assigned to it. Maybe if we called it deep-stakes plotting, we’d stop building stories on mountains of meaningless events, and look beneath, at the white-hot human core of them, to find the stuff worth risking for. The real gems are hidden inside.

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