Saturday, 25 February 2017
What are high stakes?
It’s the risk element at the heart of any story. What might be lost? What might be gained? What might be the consequences?
Within every story, the main characters often make choices that affect the path of the story and they are responsible for actions and reactions that create cause and effect. The consequence of those actions is that some risk is involved – whether that’s personal risk or public risk (i.e. risk to other people).
High stakes – or high risks – are also made tangible by the presence of conflict. Where there’s conflict, all manner of risks tend to emerge.
The reader wants to know what might be gained or lost within a story. Is survival at stake? Is it love? Or a loved one? Is it a house, something precious or something sentimental, perhaps? These are the things that mean most to your main character – something that resonates in all of us. What would you do to protect your family, your house, everything you have? And what would such loss mean?
High stakes indeed.
There is always something or someone at stake in every story; some that are deeply personal and some that puts other people in danger – and this friction causes all manner of conflict; just the thing you want for a great story.
Personal High Stakes
What means the most to you is probably not far different to what means the most to your characters. And if such things were at risk, it’s likely we’d all act in a way to try to do everything in our power to avoid the consequences. Your main characters will act in the same manner. An element of risk will change their behaviour; they will do things out of character, go to extremes or maybe even cross certain lines to achieve his or her goal.
By creating high stakes that are personal to your main character, you create immediacy with the reader, who will sympathise; they will understand the motives of your characters and they will become emotionally invested because they will know what such high stakes mean. Not only that, but the more realistic the stakes, the involved the reader will be.
Of course, the one thing that keeps the tension within high stakes is the huge and very real threat of failure. What if the hero fails to find the car bomb? What if he/she can’t find the cure for his/her son’s mystery illness? What if the father can’t save his son from the house fire? These are true high stakes.
But the idea of the high stakes relies on that realisation that it might go wrong and all will be lost. That’s the reality.
Public High Stakes
Personal high stakes are one thing, but public ones carry greater responsibility because it’s not just one person or one thing that your main character has to consider, but it could be the fate of many.
There are always innocent victims of conflict. Clever writers use public high stakes to crank up the tension and create extra conflict by making things worse for the people involved.
For example, imagine a hostage situation. The bad guy will start killing hostages unless your hero can try to talk him out of it, or perhaps disarm him. Or what if your main character is a soldier trying to defend a village from terrorists? Does he sacrifice some of them to reach his goal, or does he gamble those high stakes to try to protect the innocent women and children, while facing the inevitable threat of death, all by himself.
With public stakes, there is greater capacity for something to go wrong, to fail, and therefore the loss would also be greater. The emotional impact of this threat is more significant. The consequences are palpable and very real, and if writers can create this sense of realism, then the story will become even more compelling.
Change or Escalate the Stakes
Don’t be afraid to change the stakes to keep readers interested. There’s no reason why your main character can’t start out with one set of stakes and as the story progresses, more conflicts emerge and those stakes take on a different meaning altogether.
Protagonists and antagonists will share different high stakes, so when they are thrown together at various points in the story, their goals and motivations create huge conflict, because one will lose and the other will win. So whatever is at stake, there will be loss and there will be gains. Good or bad. One or the other.
The other thing writers can do is escalate the stakes, to make things almost impossible for their main character or to make the stakes such that the hero could lose everything if they make a fatal mistake or decision. Writers love nothing better than to make everything a whole lot worse for everyone, because the moment they do, they escalate the risk, and when that happens, the consequences become unfathomable, terrifying and very real.
The fundamental question is this: what is truly at stake for your protagonist? Is it worth the risk? The answer, of course, is yes, it’s always worth the risk. The higher the stakes, the greater the risk. Risk creates tension and conflict, which in turn creates emotions.
This is why your story needs high stakes. Without them, your main character will have nothing much to do and nothing much to care for.
Next week: How to engage the reader
Saturday, 18 February 2017
With most stories, we create supporting characters to help tell the story; a way of adding dimension, depth and colour, as well as lending support – be it in a good way or bad way – to the protagonist.
A story full of people is like real life. Some are good, some bad and some are fleeting. In fiction they have an important role to play because those supporting characters help the writer tell a vivid story that keeps the reader involved by sometimes utilising them as viewpoint characters. They may even be involved in subplots.
To help move the story forward, they are involved to a degree with the protagonist and his/her story, therefore they can cause conflict, change the direction of the story or affect the lead character. All this helps the reader understand the complex dynamics of characterisation.
But there are some drawbacks with supporting characters, and writers usually don’t discover these problems until they are well into writing their novels.
Most supporting characters that inhabit the main story shouldn’t really number more than a handful, otherwise the reader may become confused with who is who and it may be difficult for the reader (and the writer) to keep track of a multitude of people. Aim for clarity and don’t overburden a manuscript with a cast of hundreds.
Most novels have the protagonist and antagonist as main or primary characters. The secondary or supporting characters tend to be family members, close friends or colleagues, sidekicks/partners – who may be with the hero or they could be associated with the villain - mentors or teacher types, and of course, the clichéd love interest.
So what are the drawbacks of these supporting characters?
The main one is that some secondary characters have a habit of taking over or stealing the spotlight. In other words, the writer hasn’t recognised that the character has overshadowed the protagonist. This is a common problem, particularly in the first draft, because the writer is simply writing the bare bones of the story and needs to get it written.
First drafts tend to be the foundation of the story; the skeletal structure that will ultimately become a full blown novel, so the writing isn’t that structured, it may meander from the main plot from time to time and some things may fall into the background when they should be in the foreground.
These issues are ironed out in editing and redrafting. The writer should spot this. Remember that the story is about the protagonist – it’s his or her personal story, so the majority of the spotlight should always be on your hero.
If you see that one of the supporting characters has stolen that spotlight, then you need to make some cuts to bring your main character back into focus.
But how do you spot this? The best way to check is to count how many of your chapters relate to your protagonist. Then count how many relate to secondary characters. Most novels will have a main character percentage that hits around 70%. So if you see that Character B appears in 35% of the book, Character C appears in 20% and Character D is 10%, you will see just how much of the limelight your protagonist has by comparison. In this example, the hero appears in only 35% of the time, which is the same as Character B.
So whose story is it? The protagonist or Character B? If the balance isn’t addressed, it can cause major headaches and the reader may not be sure just whose story it really is.
The other problem with your supporting characters is that often – and this occurs with new writers – one or more turn into a cliché. The love interest character is a cliché, there’s no getting away from it. It’s up to the writer to make the writing dynamic and clever enough to escape that label and present the story in such a unique way that it’s not even noticeable.
As an example, the “damsel in distress who needs rescuing” character is a huge cliché and almost always crops up in manuscripts. This is the 21st Century – women can kick ass, too. The other most often used clichéd character is the “stupid woman” who never listens to her hero boyfriend and decides to leave the safety of the car to investigate the creepy noises, despite being told not to. Or the one that runs from the haunted house in nine inch stilettoes and keeps falling over. There is also the one that walks stupidly into danger so that the hero can – you guessed it – rush in a save her. This is contrivance ex machina.
Not all women are stupid and need the hero to save them every other chapter. The amount of writers that still do this is astonishing.
Another problem is that writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary character swap places. This confuses the story for the writer and reader. Be aware of this and correct it at editing and redrafting stage, or rewrite the story to change the protagonist. Be clear before you start writing just whose story it is.
Sometimes the supporting cast can turn out to be more wooden than a forest. If that happens, the story won’t have the support it needs, since the secondary characters help to tell the story. Characterisation is just as important for them as it is for your protagonist.
Supporting characters may not share equal spotlight with the hero, but their presence is what makes the story, so it’s important that they help bring the story to life without causing trouble. Be clear from the start who your characters are and what role they will play. That way you will avoid these common problems.
Next week: Why your story needs high stakes.
Sunday, 12 February 2017
We’ve looked at this subject before, back in 2013, but it’s always worth a revisit.
Dialogue is one of those things that a lot of writers feel insecure about. This may be because it’s sometimes hard to ensure dialogue is active, dynamic, interesting and realistic for readers, instead of being forced or stilted, melodramatic, hackneyed or just plain terrible. Readers aren’t interested in mundane pleasantries and chit-chat. They’re interested in the action and nitty-griity, the stuff that really matters.
The key to getting dialogue right is down to listening to real life conversations and observing how people interact when communicating with each other, because dialogue isn’t just about one character saying something to another. It also involves a certain amount of physicality – movement, gestures, ticks etc. And of course, each character is individual and therefore has a unique voice, a certain way of talking and acting, so this should be apparent when you write dialogue.
Dramatic dialogue enhances the atmosphere and mood of the scene by utilising emotions – anger, sadness, betrayal, frustration etc. Emotions are what lift ordinary dialogue from the page and brings the reader closer to the story. Dialogue without emotion is flat and boring, so it’s important to engage the reader in this way.
When people engage in a conversation, particularly passionate discussion, you’ll hear certain tones and pitches within people’s voices, with some people showing abrupt rhythms in their speech, while others have almost ‘sing-song’ rhythms. All these nuances show the individual personalities of your characters. They are character revealing, which dialogue should be.
Let’s look at the some examples of emotionless dialogue and the affect it has on the reader:
‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call,’ he said.
‘That’s terrible,’ she said. ‘If there is anything we can do, just say.’
‘Thanks, but it’s done, there's nothing anyone could have done,’ he said.
This type of flat, uninspiring dialogue is very common among new writers. It’s not a bad thing, but it means that it just takes time to show the reader the emotion of the moment with the characters. If the scene is dramatic, the dialogue should show this, without being over the top, of course. So, rewritten with some warmth and emotion, it would be like this:
The knot in his throat tightened. ‘The crash happened this afternoon. I wasn’t there, but I got a phone call.’
‘Oh, Peter, that’s terrible,’ she said, and her expression sank. ‘If there is anything we can do, anything at all, just say.’
He half smiled through his hurt; a pretence. ‘Thanks, I appreciate it, but I feel so terrible, I feel I should have been there - there's nothing anyone could have done...’
This time around, there are hints to what the characters are feeling because it shows the tightening of the throat – emotion does that, or if you try to stifle crying. Her expression ‘sank’ and he half smiled to hide his true feelings of pain. This is more realistic, with reactions that carry more emotion for the reader.
Anger is another emotion that can create dramatic dialogue. If you’ve heard people in real life arguing, it involves shouting, pitched voices, being loud, as well as being physical, and lots of gestures and sudden movements. Any dramatic dialogue should capture this to make the reader believe in the emotion, and the realism, of it all, for example:
‘Why are you saying this? She was standing there one minute and vanished the next, I swear.’
Halsted sighed. ‘Look, Mr Van Bruen, your wife wasn’t with you when you entered the store.’
‘Yes she was! Why don’t you believe me?’
Halsted leaned forward. ‘Please, sir, you need to stay c--’
Van Bruen shot up from the chair. ‘No! I won’t stay calm. You’re not listening to me. None of you are listening to me!’ His eyes widened and coloured with irritation. ‘You’re all the damn same, all of you...’
This example uses pace and punchy sentences to create tension within the dialogue, together with sentences being interrupted and the inclusion of sudden movements from the main character, who reacts badly to the questioning. The shows the reader the emotions that simmer beneath the surface. Not only that, but it doesn’t resort to being over-dramatic. The reader could relate to the situation.
Dialogue, dramatic or otherwise, should always move the story forward and also reveal your characters. What the reader won’t learn about your characters in narrative, they will learn from your characters through dialogue.
The other thing you can do to manipulate the reader’s emotions and create tension and is to create obstacles to communication between characters. For instance, if character A is trying to get his point across about something extremely important, perhaps life changing, then provide resistance from character B or C; something that provides tension and frustration. For example:
‘You should at least look at the figures,’ Cole said.
‘I don’t need to look at figures. This business is just fine without your meddling,’ Davis said, unconcerned.
‘How can it be fine when it’s losing so much money?’ he shot back. ‘You can’t bury your head in the sand and hope for the best. You need to look at these figures because people’s jobs depend on it.’
Davis stood up. ‘I don’t need a jumped up little would-be accountant trying to tell me how to run my own damn business, otherwise you can find another job. Got that?’
Cole shrank beneath Davis’ shadow.
‘Now stop bothering me and get back to work...’
As the reader, you want Cole to get through to the stubborn Davis, but he’s thwarted.This is a common way for writers to create tension and drama in their dialogue, and again the reader will relate to this.
Dramatic dialogue needs drama and conflict and emotions to work. Without these ingredients, the dialogue will be flat and boring.
- Dramatic scenes require dramatic dialogue.
- Know your character’s motivations and desires – create obstacles in their conversations, get them passionate or frustrated or angry. Get the most from their dialogue.
- Emphasise speech – use tone and pitch and contrasting rhythms.
- Keep the dialogue short and snappy. People don’t chit-chat when in an emergency, neither should your characters.
- Emotions and tensions and conflict all create drama.
- Create immediacy with your reader – make them relate to the characters and their situation.
Next week: The trouble with your supporting characters
Saturday, 4 February 2017
Part 2 looked at the various elements writers can use to construct better fight scenes, and more importantly, more realistic ones.
Realism, physicality, exposition and the balance of power etc, should play a part in the construction of fight scenes. Think about who your characters are, why they are fighting and what it may or may not achieve. The fight/conflict must move the story forward and there must be a reason behind them.
Let’s look at some different examples, starting with this one:
Dave jolted forward and swiped his hand across John’s throat; defensive, desperate.
John fumbled with the gun, his nerves shattered. Then it was in his hand.
Dave sidestepped and snapped a leg out, hard and quick, his hot breath lodged in his throat, his heartbeat loud in his ears.
John crumpled, the gun still in his hand. Still a threat.
Dave kicked again. No hesitation. Then another, harder, with anger...
In this first example, the description is fast and punchy and gives the reader the perception that everything is happening very quickly. Not only that, but there is some emotion – a sense of panic and fear and adrenaline that gives the character, Dave, a ‘fight or flight’ response.
This second example is written differently, but still retains the dramatic effect that fights scenes rely on:
The soldier ran from the darkness like a salivating wolf and aimed at the boy.
Dmitry sprawled against the dirty floor as bullets thumped into the wood around him. He managed to fire off a couple of shots into the darkness, not knowing where the bullets hit. He didn’t hear the shots, but instead he heard a surreal cacophony of screaming and shouting and the metallic clink of empty shells that poured like a coppery stream onto the wooden floor. His body remained stiff and his face creased against the flare of dust. But in his mind the fear of the moment almost drowned his thoughts, that any moment he would die, ripped open by grey-uniformed ghosts.
Another close shot snapped against the wooden railing and startled him.
In this example, the use of more description makes the pace a little slower, thus giving the reader extra time to process what’s happening. Although still a fight scene, it’s allowing the reader to take in the imagery and be more involved, more so than a faced paced scene would do. By deliberately slowing down the perception of the narrative, it appears as though the event is happening in slow motion.
These type are effective and unique fight scenes. They’re slightly different and not the usual cliched fight scene so often seen in movies. Instead of the usual breakneck speed and explosive nature normally associated with a fight, especially with weapons, instead this one takes a measured, logical approach that incorporates the character’s own thoughts and emotions to create the same dramatic impact.
There is a tendency for writers to over-describe sometimes with these types of fight scenes, but in truth the reader doesn’t need to see every movement, every punch, every kick or every stumble, otherwise reading it will become a chore. As with all description, it’s about balance. Give the reader drama, but make it visual.
It’s worth reiterating that the hero isn’t superhuman and should not win every fight. Your characters must be flawed and sometimes vulnerable, but as the story progresses, the character grows and develops, and learns from previous encounters. That way, future fights will be in his or her favour.
Compared to the other examples, this one is more raw and gritty:
Deke’s eyes blurred. Blood, snot. Trickling sensations.
Jenson’s fist connected with flesh. Again and again, arms swinging, and all Deke could do was push and flail while breath rushed in and out of his chest and made it hard to breathe, while the sound of Jenson’s exertions filled his ears as their heads clashed.
Senses fizzed. Desperation made Deke pummel Jenson’s torso in a flurry of awkward punches, anything to get away...
In this example, we see the scrappy, uncoordinated side seen in real fights. This is more representative of real life and shows a more realistic balance of power between the characters.
These examples make use of the various useful elements that make fight scenes tight, pacey, believable and realistic for the reader. Whether you want something fast and dramatic, something with deep perspective and more description, or whether it’s scrappy realism, know what kind of fight you want to construct, know why and and, of course, know what it will convey to the reader.
Remember, don’t force fight scenes or depend on deus ex machina to make them work. They happen for a reason, which is important to the plot and the main character. They happen in order to enhance the narrative, characterise and push the story forward.
Next week: How to write dramatic dialogue