Elements of a Plot
If you’ve ever plotted out a novel, or taken a story structure class, you’re probably familiar with the idea of working forward from the protagonist’s goal. As I (and MANY others) have said: CHARACTER + DESIRE + OBSTACLES = PLOT.
If you know what your character wants more than anything else in the world and you’re prepared to throw all manner of obstacles in her way, you’ve likely got yourself a plot. If you want a refresher on that idea, take a look at my earlier blog post on plot and story structure here.
Another question to think about, that’s maybe talked about a little less often in writing workshops, relates to STAKES. Perhaps not as tasty as it sounds, stakes are about how important the narrative journey is for your character. What does she stand to lose if she fails to attain her desire?
You can think of this question as the flipside of the “character desire + obstacles” equation, or as maybe an additional dimension to it.
If the stakes for the character aren’t high enough, the story will be boring and you’ll likely lose the reader’s interest.
A good question to ask yourself when you’re throwing all those obstacles at your character is:
Can she just walk away/give up? What’s the cost if she does?
An obvious response to having too many obstacles thrown at you is to walk away. You (or your protagonist) might ask “Is the game worth the candle? Should I simply give up on my quest and go have a beer instead?”
Most of the best stories don’t allow the protagonist to walk away.
You guessed it … because there’s too much AT STAKE. The price of walking away is higher than the price of persevering.
Think about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example.
A silly little romance, no? What’s the big deal if Lizzy just marries whoever her mother wants her to? Well, think about it. If Lizzy marries Mr. Collins she’ll end up betraying who she really is, miserable and unfulfilled. We see what her fate would be when her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, actually does marry Mr. Collins and makes the best of it. But as we watch Lizzy watch Charlotte in her married life, we can see how that life would have destroyed Lizzy if she’d settled for it. It’s within Charlotte’s character to be able to make the best of it, but it would destroy Lizzy’s soul. Lizzy will fight to be herself (that’s her goal/desire in a society that thwarts her at every turn). When she does marry, it must be on her own terms and the stakes attached to those terms must be high enough for the reader to care.
Can Lizzy just walk away from her dilemma? Can she simply say: “I don’t want to marry Mr. Collins” and it won’t matter to anyone? No, because the stakes are too high. If she and her sisters don’t make advantageous matches, her family risks becoming destitute. But Lizzy doesn’t end up making an advantageous match to help her family; she does it because she truly loves Darcy. More than that, she respects him, and he respects her. The stakes for her of not finding a partner like Darcy are financial ruin for her family. She has a heavy weight on her shoulders and she can’t walk away. What would have happened if she hadn’t found Darcy and learned who he truly was, and vice versa? It could have been pretty grim for the Bennets. The stakes are very high for Lizzy and those she loves.
Can you do the same exercise for some of your own favorite stories?
Identify not only what the character wants, and the obstacles in her way, but also the stakes. What will happen if she doesn’t get what she wants? Can she just walk away from her quest and nothing will happen of any importance?
Bear in mind that we don’t always get what we want; in life or in our stories. It’s not necessary for a character to attain her goal. The journey is what’s important. The stakes must be attached to the journey, so walking away isn’t a realistic option for the character. That’s what will keep the reader turning pages. If the protagonist fails to achieve her goal, the story will be more of a tragedy; if she does attain the goal despite the obstacles, the story is more of a triumph. The endpoint doesn’t matter as long as the stakes are there. As long as the character fights and feels something, the reader will too.
Lots of us fight for things that perhaps don’t really matter in the long run; things we could technically walk away from and it wouldn’t do us any harm. Those kinds of fights often won’t make the best stories. So when you’re creating your characters, outlining their goals and journeys and the battles they’ll face on the way, make sure you give some thought to the stakes as well. If your character can walk away and go to the pub for a beer, you may need to come up with a way to make her more invested in the journey, to make something significant hinge on her success or failure. Once the stakes are raised, the readers will follow along.
Are you interested in learning more about turning up the stakes for your characters? Join Jacqui for her class: Plot and Story Structure with Jacqueline Lipton starting Monday!
Jacqui has published flash pieces and short stories both under her own name and under the pen-name K C Maguire. Her debut novel, Inside the Palisade, a young adult sci-fi story was published by Lodestone (U.K.) in 2015 and won the Purple Dragonfly Award for science-fiction and fantasy in 2016, as well as placing in the Houston Writer’s Guild fiction writing contest the previous year. Jacqui holds an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts as well as fiction writing certificates from UCLA Extension and Stanford Online. She is a popular speaker on legal issues for authors and illustrators, and her new book Law & Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers will be published in 2019 by University of California Press. Jacqui can be found online at authography.org