Low Stakes; High Expectations

Welcome aboard the ship, Low Conflict. She’s only a tramp steamer, one of those freight-carrying, barnacle-encrusted tubs with a hold full of suspect cargo and the stink of bilge water, but she’s on the move, carrying your plot on her splintery decks to whatever destination you’ve picked out.

Have you looked at this vessel? Or are you too busy dreaming big? Instead of paying attention to the safety of your story, are you thinking about what’s going to happen when Low Conflict makes port? Do you have your eye on reaping tons of e-book sales, critical acclaim, and favorable reader reviews?

Beware. Low Conflict is about to run aground on a jagged chunk of iceberg floating beneath the water’s surface. A chunk of iceberg called insufficient stakes. Low Conflict‘s going to sink long before she reaches harbor.

Okay, we’ll drop the metaphor.

We can kid ourselves all day long. Our hopes and ambitions can blind us when what we need is a sharp reality check. It’s hard sometimes to force ourselves to take a close look at what we’ve written. We’d rather surrender to fatigue or doubt or denial and keep writing weak scenes with bystander protagonists or flabby story action where things work out–improbably–for the beleaguered hero.

Stop it! Don’t waste time dreaming about how successful you’re going to be.

Instead, focus on your writing craft.

Your scenes have to be crisp and tense. They need to be centered around well-designed conflict. The stakes need to be high. Then go higher. Time should be running out for your characters. Make your story people sweat and struggle. Let them fail just when they need so desperately to succeed. Because once they’re truly cornered, they’ll pour on the effort and take their last stand–with teeth gritted, hearts on fire, and determination rock solid inside them.

That’s when you write stories worth reading.

1 Comment

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One response to “Low Stakes; High Expectations

  1. kzackuslheureux

    So, today I just wrote a blog post about how little I want to torture my characters! ha ha! I have so much to learn! Where’s the balance?
    I titled the mellow-loving post “Tensity” because I am convinced I must be able to find something to challenge my characters and not rip them to pieces in the mean time. 🙂

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