Raising the stakes

At the mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference last month, keynoter Han Nolan said, “When a story scares me so much that I want to give up, when it’s so dangerous I’m scared to sit at the page, that’s when I know that I’m onto something.”

She got me thinking. As a young writer, my stories were … nice. The characters were … nice. I suffered from classic middle-child-itis, the desire for everyone to get along. And just yesterday, I was doing it again. While writing a scene, a new character appeared, and within a few minutes he had hijacked the story. He was fun. Writing about him allowed me to avoid writing the confrontation-scene I’d spent chapters setting up.

So I’m glad I realized the mistake this time, but I know I’ll do it again. What can I say—middle child that I am—my tendency to avoid conflict is pretty strong. I hate having to assert myself. But sometimes telling the truth means being assertive. It’s an uncomfortable place, but if my characters don’t go into places that are uncomfortable or scary or dangerous—if they don’t go anywhere that really matters—why read about them?

Danger. Conflict. Tension. They take many forms. We writers need to ask what the stakes are for our characters. Then we need to raise the stakes. That idiom comes from gamblers: when they raise the stakes—the bet—anyone who wants to keep playing has to pay up or get out. It’s not the same as upping the stakes, as in pulling up tent poles and moving on. A writer needs to up the ante, demand a greater investment, increase the risk, make it dangerous to sit at the page. That’s the sort of danger that keeps readers turning pages. Thank you, Han Nolan.

2 responses to “Raising the stakes

  1. Hi Anne!

    I have just nominated your blog for a Liebster Award. I love reading your thoughts on the craft of writing and the creative process, and am happy to share the wealth with the rest of the world! The Liebster award, given by bloggers to other bloggers, is a way to spread the news about blogs that we love and want to share. Please visit my blog, The Midlife Second Wife, to learn more about the award, and how to administrate it.

    (You’ll want to save the award badge on your hard drive and upload it to your blog.
    Don’t forget to add it to your sidebar, too.)

    Keep up the wonderful work!

    —Marci

  2. Marci – Your support is awesome. Following “The Midlife Second Wife” has shown me how to do a blog particularly well. I’m still learning — still growing. Thanks so much for your blogging guidance!

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