Deb Dana Raises the Stakes

In real life, the only stakes I feel comfortable messing with are spelled s-t-e-a-k-s. Give me a filet mignon or a good old brisket, and I’m happy.

In writing, however, I am forced to deal with s-t-a-k-e-s. Not only do I need to know what is at stake for my characters; I also need to raise those stakes at every opportunity. How do I do that? By adding conflict.

As a novelist, you can’t simply create an interesting character and then do nothing with him or her. No matter how endearing or complex the character is, readers aren’t going to care unless, as a writer, you make that character jump over some hurdles. And to keep the reader interested, you need to raise those hurdles higher and higher as the story progresses.

To do that, you need to make your protagonist’s life hell. You have to create a whole bunch of problems for her, and then you have to ask yourself, “How could I make her predicament even worse?” And then you have to do whatever the answer to that question is.

As someone who shies away from conflict at every opportunity, I had to recalibrate my comfort level with conflict when I started writing novels. I had to accept that the sorts of situations that would make me really uncomfortable are exactly the sorts of situations I should throw my characters into to propel the story forward.

My main character, Hannah Sugarman, wants to cook for a living, so I had to throw as many obstacles in her way as I could to prevent that from happening. At the beginning, those obstacles include overbearing parents, a disapproving boyfriend, lack of financial support, a big mouth, and some major personal insecurity. When Hannah decides to start an underground supper club — a decision rife with conflict given that underground supper clubs are technically illegal — I had to throw more problems her way: a landlord who is running for local office (and wants to tighten restaurant licensing regulations), added (and unwelcome) responsibilities at her day job, increased publicity for an illicit venture she desperately wants to keep a secret, and so on.

As the story progresses, I made things even worse for Hannah. I really backed her into a corner so that not only was it harder for her to achieve her goal, but it also mattered more if she failed. I can’t tell you exactly how I did that without ruining some of the story, so you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what I mean! But suffice it to say, I didn’t give Hannah an easy time.

In my everyday life, I’m happy to keep the conflict to a minimum, so that the only stakes I have to intensify are s-t-e-a-k-s. But in writing, I’ve learned to love conflict and the extra meat it adds to the plot.

Your turn! Which of your favorite books does an excellent job at intensifying conflict and raising the stakes for the main character?

9 Replies to “Deb Dana Raises the Stakes”

  1. I really struggled with this in the early stages of writing my novel, thinking that in real life, sometimes things aren’t dramatic or heavily strewn with problems. And then it hit me. THIS IS FICTION. And the more I read, and continue to read, the more I am able to identify the moments the stakes are raised and conflicts arise in fiction. This helps me separate BELIEVABLE and REAL as I write, because they are different.

    In real life I go for steaks over stakes every time!! xo

    1. Exactly! Sometimes you have to turn off the voice that says, “But I’d never do that…” Because if you wouldn’t, your character probably should!

  2. On the days when everything is hard and going wrong, I sometimes wonder if I’ve wondered into a novel and the writer is deliberately throwing obstacles in my path. But then I realize this is paranoid thinking and I don’t tell anybody that I’m feeling this way. 🙂

  3. Oooo STEAKS! I love steaks. In fact, I made it my mission in life to learn to cook filet mignon like a steakhouse so I could enjoy it at home. My son loves this, and says I’ve hit my goal – but I say I need more practice….LOTS and LOTS of practice….

    My writing is the same. Lots of practice to hit that mark. It was really hard for me to raise the stakes enough at first (I think most new authors have this issue) but once I started the “worst thing that could happen” game it got easier. The game goes like this. In first draft, whenever I pause in the story, I have to ask myself “what’s the worst (realistic) thing that could happen here, from Hiro’s point of view?” Generally speaking, that’s what I do. It’s not very nice, but it’s effective!

    1. Exactly! “What’s the worst that could happen?” is a great question to ask :).

      Oh, and if you figure out the secret to steakhouse filet mignon, please let me know!

  4. OH!I love both steaks AND stakes! It’s so fun to throw something at my character just to see what she/he will do. My protag always surprises me! But isn’t this the beauty of fiction? Another fun post from the Deb Ball. Thanks, ladies. 🙂

    1. My protagonists always surprise me too! But you’re right — that’s the beauty of fiction. I love when my characters start taking on lives of their own.

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