We’re continuing last week’s theme with guest blogger Kristan Higgins, a New York Times bestselling author. Her latest book, The Best Man, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, and is in bookstores on February 26. Visit her at her website or her Facebook page.
Don’t know about you guys, but most of my books start with a conundrum. Since I write romantic comedies, they’re not usually terrifying situations, but something that will take a little time to get over. A woman is left at the altar when her fiancé comes out of the closet… that’s the premise of my tenth novel, The Best Man, which comes out (no pun intended) next week. A bankrupted woman has to flip a decrepit cottage in six weeks… that would be my last book, Somebody to Love. The initial conundrum is all fine and good, until about the middle of the book or movie, when we need something else to liven things up. Generally, this is called upping the stakes.
It’s also about the time we writers start to hate life, drink to excess, and kick dolphins. Or maybe that’s just me. I remember hearing a screenwriting guru talk about this. “You need to increase the stakes,” he said. “Make it more important than ever that the protagonist is successful at accomplishing his goal.” Yes, yes, I thought. I WILL do those things! Just tell me how! But no, Mr. Guru Man had already moved on. So how do you up the stakes? I don’t know. I wonder every time I write a book, and I never have a plan for upping the stakes until I hit that sagging middle. It’s only when tufts of my hair are clenched in my fists that I realize there’s the need to kick it up a notch. In my vast movie-viewing experience and based on the thousands of books I’ve read, I’ve come up with the following list:
1. Just kill someone already. Plot spoiler alert! Okay, so Luke and Han and Leia are trying to disable the who’s-a-ma-thingie, and they almost got squished in the garbage squisher, and what’s this? Obi-Wan and Darth Vader are fighting, and oh… uh-oh. Obi-Wan dies. In the first Die Hard, Professor Snape kills the irritating, coke-sniffing coworker. Suddenly, the bad guys really mean business. They’re not just thieves; they’re murderers of innocent (and irritating) bystanders. The death of a character certainly has a way of bringing home what’s at stake here. In the case of the death of the mentor character, it means the hero is on his own now. And revenge is at play. Darth Vader was pretty evil to begin with, but now he killed the Rebels’ best hope of success, and the person Luke Skywalker most admired.
2. Bring me the child! Remember in Air Force One, when bad-ass President Harrison Ford isn’t gonna play nice with Harry Potter’s godfather? No way! We don’t negotiate with terrorists! Oh, hang on. The terrorist has the President’s daughter. Never mind. Negotiating commences. Conditions on board deteriorate, and the goal moves further out of reach. But who can blame Mr. President? He loves his kid. It’s not the wrong choice to save your little princess, but it doesn’t do much in terms of defeating the bad guys. Any time a kid’s welfare or emotional state is brought into play, life gets complicated. This is not to say that I want to see random children thrust into the spotlight, but if you have a kid in the story, it’s probably for a reason.
3. Return of the ex Just when a romance is going along great, along comes the ex. In my new favorite movie, Silver Linings Playbook, Katniss Everdeen sees Bradley Blue-Eyes whispering in his wife’s ear. For the entire movie, he’s wanted to get her back, to talk to her, to explain. Not once has he indicated an interest in Katniss, poor lamb. And so she flees. We the reader or viewer know that this other person, this ex, isn’t the One, but still. He or she possesses everything or hero/heroine does not. Poise. Money. Slutty shoes. Insecurity rears its ugly head, and the protagonist feels gutted.
4. Mission aborted. When you have an adventure movie, or a disaster movie, there’s often a moment when the mission is aborted because heck, it’s just too dangerous, and the meteor/tornado/virus is going to wipe out the earth and we’re all just going to have to deal. This, or something breaks. You know. The drill in Armageddon can’t get through the iron. The nuke in Independence Day doesn’t work. The fighter jets fire on the alien ships, but the force field is too strong. Against all expectations, the plan that seemed so great has failed, and there really is no Plan B (until the spark of the divine, of course).
5. Just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water… …the past swims up and bites off your leg. Way back in time, before your book starts, back when the heroine was so impressionable, something wicked bad happened (oh, how I love backstory!). Whatever it was, it left a helluva mark, and the worst thing that could happen to her is to be that vulnerable again. So there’s Katniss, hanging tough in The Hunger Games, and she makes an alliance with the incredibly adorable Rue. And then — spoiler alert #2!—Rue dies. A person who helped Katniss and who loved her too, has died, same as dear old dad. And Katniss, whose life is all about protecting her fragile little sister, has failed another little girl, as she fears she will fail Primrose. Pass the tissues.
So we all know that upping the stakes is critical to a good screenplay or book. Do you have any other tried and true methods or tropes that have worked well for you?