Stakes

A lot of people are interested in writing, but they don’t know where to begin.

Now, there are a lot of things about writing that are completely subjective and individual. There are some things that can never be taught. However, the answer to the question, “Where do I start?” has a clean and objective answer.

needle_haystack

So…What is It?

Well, there is some confusion on this issue that needs cleaning up first.

Some writers advise others to start with the main character. Others say begin with the ending, or begin with the setting, or begin with the plot.

These are all wrong. And it doesn’t matter who said them—if Shakespeare himself has endorsed any of these positions, then that would be a strike against Shakespeare, not against this blog post. And I’ll tell you why.

Before You Roll the Dice

priceisright4

First, I must ask: are you a gambling man, or gambling woman?

If you’re not, then keep reading. If you are, then consider this:

When playing a game of chance, what is the first thing you do?

And before you try to object to my position, I will insist that every story is a game of chance. How could it not be? Storytelling, in any medium, requires that the audience gather around to see what is going to happen, the same way that a crowd gathers around a game table…provided that the stakes are right.

It’s the same reason that people feel a compelling need to place bets on a boxing match. You might think that the proposition of seeing two men beat each other down would be exciting enough for anyone, but you’d be wrong.

Because boxing, like so many other sports, is boring to the point of being unwatchable. What good does it do to see your team win or lose, when you know that they will get an infinite number of do-overs? Football season passes away into football season. Baseball and soccer, much like the circus, keep coming back to town year after year. And no matter how badly a fighter is beaten today, he will start his next match with a clean slate (unless he gets beaten so badly that he can never arise again, but thankfully we have rules to prevent such a thing from happening).

So what do people do? Or rather, what have they always done to keep themselves from losing interest?

They add stakes to the table, and they do it first, before any other aspect of the game is decided. There is a practical reason for this, of course: every interested party needs to understand what they will gain or lose from the outcome, so the stakes are provided first, for clarity’s sake. And that’s what you, clever writer, need to emulate.

Starting with Stakes

la_ca_0828_the_book_of_life

Beginning any new work by deciding the stakes confers upon you, the writer, a large number of advantages.

To start with, knowing the stakes beforehand takes all the hassle and guesswork out of choosing a genre. And, to be clear, genre is not the same as setting. Scifi, Fantasy, Historical, and Horror are settings, not genres. For example, any kind of story can be told in a Scifi setting: a love story, a war story, a family drama, etc. It is important to be aware of this distinction.

So, once you have chosen your stakes, you can easily decipher your genre using the following guidelines.

  • If the stakes involve the fate of the world, then you know you are writing some kind of war story or political thriller.
  • If the stakes involve the possibility of two people spending their lives together, then you know you are writing a love story.
  • If the stakes involve someone fulfilling (or pitted against) their own destiny, then you know you are telling an adventure story.
  • If the stakes involve the survival of one person or small group of people, then you know you are telling a survival or desperation story (the horror setting is traditionally paired with this genre, though it’s just as easy to put, for example, a love story in a horror setting).
  • If the stakes involve some kind of shameful secret getting out, then you know you are writing some kind of social drama or family drama.
  • If the stakes involve the violation of some kind of cultural taboo, then you have a comedy.

Naturally, you can blend genres (you do this by having multiple stakes). And, also naturally, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a million subcategories of stakes. For example, if the world is at stake, does that mean the planet itself, or just the things living on the planet, or just humanity’s continued existence, or “the world” meaning the current global society? Likewise, if the stakes are a lifelong relationship between two people, then what will happen if they don’t get together—will they never see each other again, or will they still see each other all the time, forced to think about what might have been every time they go to work or to the supermarket? These decisions are paramount, but not hard to make if you decide the stakes before you grow attached to the characters.

And, just like that, you’re halfway done with outlining your story.

But wait—there’s more.

Continuing with Stakes

harvey

Having the stakes in mind from the start, with genre closely in tow, allows you now to consider the next essential part—the ending.

This is as simple as deciding the outcome of the game. Make your choice about who is going to win the gamble. Will it be your main character? Will it be the antagonist or enemy? Or, if it is a split victory, then who will end up with how much, and when will they get it?

Once you’ve answered these questions, congratulations—you have an ending. Wasn’t that easy?

Finishing with Stakes

200_s

Now that you have your stakes, now that you have your genre and your ending, you can finally begin.

You have all the pieces you need. The only thing left to do is decide who it happens to. Who is your main character?

And that largely does not matter. No matter what your stakes, genre, or ending are, they can happen to anyone: male or female, rich or poor, young or old, typical or gifted or impaired—these are just details that you fill out according to your personal preference.

Which is not to say that they make no difference. Your finished story will look very different, depending on whether your protagonist is an old rich woman, or a young and impoverished Labrador Retriever. But either one of these scenarios can be made into a brilliant story, and neither is necessarily better than the other. It does not matter who you choose to be the hero of your story, as long as it is your true choice.

Checkmate in Three Moves

And that’s all there is to it. The story is now ready. All you have to do is write it down.

And it wasn’t so hard to figure out where to begin. It only takes one big choice, followed by a number of small ones. So don’t let me hear you say that the only thing keeping you from writing is that you don’t know where to begin. Because that’s a smokescreen. Your real reasons for not writing are actually fear and doubt. But guess what: every writer feels the same way.

So don’t give up quite yet. You’ve got the road map. The key is in the ignition, and it’s still a thousand miles too soon for you to say, “Well, I tried.”

Hopefully, this post has cleared up any confusion you had on the subject. If not, then feel free to leave a comment explaining why.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…until they are ready.”]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Stakes

  1. Not a bad model. I can see how your stakes-first approach to storytelling could be useful. But I take issue with your assertion that it is “wrong” to begin a story with character, or plot, or any other aspect of the story.

    Quite often the stakes rest on the character’s desires and morals, in which case, maybe it would be better to define the character in order to understand what the stakes for him/her are?

    What if the stakes are different for every character in the story? One character might be trying to win a war, while another just needs the fighting to stop.

    Which character’s stakes do you start with?

    Sometimes the stakes of the story stem from the conflict. For example, if the conflict is a political election, then the stakes are the office that is up for grabs. You could also view this conflict as having built-in stakes, which means that you could just as easily have started with the plot.

    I take your point: that the stakes are a kind of lynch pin in the story and can help orient the other aspects.

    However, I don’t think the stakes of a story can exist in a vacuum, and I find it hard to separate stakes from character, plot, setting, etc.

    1. Well, of course you can start with characters or genre or the ending, but you’re doing yourself a disservice if you do.

      Starting with any of the other elements will make your writing process longer and harder. When your fully developed characters and genre progress to the point where you decide the stakes, you will discover that you have go back and change them to match your choice, because you made the mistake of building a pyramid on its tip.

      Starting with characters is particularly dangerous, because you run the risk of falling in love with those characters, tempting you to soften the stakes as a way of helping them out. Much better to set your stakes high in the first place, and then build a character, scene by scene, who will be strong enough to handle those stakes when they arrive.

      I have added a clarifying paragraph to the post now. Hopefully, it will clear up all remaining questions.

Comments are closed.