Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I try to troubleshoot an aspect of writing. This week I will be covering STAKES.
This week on the PubCrawl podcast, Wicked Cool Riley and I will be critiquing some queries sent to us for review by aspiring authors,1 and as we were reading the submissions, both she and I agreed that the biggest concern across the board was a lack of specificity, which contributed to a lack of stakes.
But what do we mean by stakes? For me, stakes is shorthand for emotional investment. Basically, the question I want answered at every stage of the writing process is Why should I care? Why should I keep reading? What is propelling the story forward?
There are two ways to go about building stakes: via plot and via character. Ideally, you would work with both, but I’ve definitely read books where the plot was strong and the characters were weak2 (and vice versa3) that I still found incredibly compelling. But how do you make things compelling? How do you maintain tension? How do you get readers to care for, fear for, and ultimately root for your characters?
We’ve all read books that have seemed derivative of other, better works. But is it possible to be derivative when every possible story has already been told? I think people put a lot of misplaced emphasis on originality; or rather, the emphasis is misplaced when it comes to originality. Many writers think “original” means “an original story” when in fact “original” means “an original way of telling a familiar story.”
The fact of the matter is we as humans reach for the familiar when it comes to narratives. There are similarities and resonances across different myths and fairy tales all over the world. The reason we even have structure and craft and ideas of narrative satisfaction and emotional catharsis in Western storytelling is because of a subconscious desire to find the familiar.
So, back to specificity. If every story has already been told, then what differentiates your story from the rest are the details. A common mistake Kelly and I saw the query submissions was the instinct to go broad, to tell us about the “universal” themes, rather than providing us with specific details. This resulted in a lot of vagueness where we couldn’t discern exactly what the stakes were and why we should care.
The thing is, specificity breeds intimacy. The more you know about someone, the more you come to have a genuine emotional connection to that person, whether positive or negative. Specificity also allows the reader to extrapolate about personality. The more details you give, the more information you have, the more you can see where potential conflict lies. And that makes you care.
You can, of course, fall into the trap of being too detailed. Details and specificity are related, but not necessarily the same thing. You can describe every minutiae of a character’s appearance: the exact shade of their eyes, the length of their lashes, the shape of their arms, etc. but that doesn’t tell us much about the character as a person. It doesn’t give us hints or clues as to how they would react in a given situation. The details that contribute to specificity are action: what characters do. How they move. What they say.
That’s all for this week! Next time we will be discussing the actual publishing process, starting with STRUCTURAL EDITS.