Our protagonists must need...
Chocolate? Mango margaritas on the rocks? Seinfeld reruns?
No, not what does a writer need. What does the protagonist need?
I've heard such great things about the craft book Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I'm finally giving it a try. In his section about Stakes, he writes that each of our protagonists must need the following:
A torturous need
A consuming fear
An aching regret
A visible dream
A passionate longing
An inescapable ambition
An exquisite lust
An inner lack
A fatal weakness
An unavoidable obligation
An iron instinct
An irresistible plan
A noble idea
An undying hope
Personal stakes. As I plot my next book and create characters, I've had an easy time with some of these needs. Others were not so easy and will require me to dig deeper. That's a good thing. Maass suggests we "Dramatize the inner struggle. Bring its changes home in key moments of high drama."
When escalating the stakes, he says we should ask these two questions: "How could things get worse?" and, "When would be the worst moment for them to get worse?"
Maass encourages writers to dig deeper and get mean. For instance, he suggests the following (quoted from his book):
- Who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character.
- What is your protagonist's greatest physical asset? Take it away.
- What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it.
- How much time does your protagonist have to solve his main problem? Shorten it.
As he asks these questions, I'm taking copious notes. Brainstorming. He's helping me search for stronger trials and higher personal stakes. If the main character doesn't reach their story goal, does it matter?
He suggests we ask ourselves why should readers care? Why are we writing this book? He also says this: "High stakes ultimately come from your own high commitment, either to moral truth or to truth in the telling of your tale. In writing the breakout novel, it does not matter which purpose motivates you. It matters only that you have a purpose. Without it, your novel has little chance of breaking out. Its stakes will be too low."
His advice really resonated with me. My books aren't usually about literal life and death. The stakes are different...more personal. But those stakes are significant in real life. Now I need to take his advice and continue to dig deep. Otherwise, why should anyone care about my book?
Have you read Writing the Breakout Novel? How do you decide which internal and external stakes you'll weave into your stories? Why are you writing your current novel?