Friday, December 3, 2010

Raising the Stakes...

...Before Driving Them Home in the Breast of Boredom.

He was dying from boredom. It's better this way.

I always have a book on the table while I eat. My kids think it's unfair because I won't let them read while they eat, but they are much more likely to have a spill, so it's just too bad for them.

This morning that book was Story, by Robert McKee. Easily the best book about how to engage an audience that I've ever read. I'm reviewing conflict and act design.

Here're a few tidbits-
Here's a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what's the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire?

If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core. For example, if the answer is: "Should the protagonist fail, life would go back to normal," this story is not worthy of telling.  
Ouch. Not worthy of telling. Sound like any memoires you've read? I kid, memoire-writers. Or is this one of those jokes that reveals my true feelings?

Okay, let's take this concept down to the scene level. In a particular scene, what happens if your protagonist fails? If it's a return to real life, that's a problem, too. There are building scenes where the conflict is increasing without coming to a conclusion, sure, but there must be risk for the protagonist. There must be stakes, and they must be high.

A crit partner told me that's what her agent commented to her over and over in her edits: Raise the stakes.

In behavioral psychology, there's this term for increasingly desperate behavior called an extinction burst. We all do it. You put a few quarters in the vending machine, press the button. Your drink doesn't come out. You press the button again, a little more firmly. When you press the return change button, it's the same. Nothing. You lift the door, maybe the drink was released and somehow you didn't notice the loud thump as the can landed in the trough, but there's nothing there. So you press the button again, ten times real fast, each time getting harder. Maybe you're a little mad now. You hit the side of the machine, sure that somehow this will work.

In a lot of novels, the protagonist is operating in this way: trying with increasing desperation to get the Coke out of the machine. They would never just walk up to the machine and punch it, but because they are blocked over and over again, they are willing to try just a little bit harder, then a little more, hoping that it will finally work.

Incidentally, giving in when a child is in the midst of an extinction burst is the best way to teach them that desperate behavior works. It sets you up for years of buying candy in the checkout line at the grocery. So don't give in when kids are kicking and screaming. They are so close to giving up and getting on with their lives. That makes for a boring novel, though. In writing, we want to increase desperation.

Here's one more quote from Story:
A story must not retreat to actions of lesser quality or magnitude, but move progressively forward to a final action beyond which the audience cannot imagine another.  
You can't have your protagonist discover a baseball bat, and walk toward the Coke machine at the end of the chapter, then have them find 75 cents in their pocket at the opening of the next chapter. Wouldn't they have checked their pockets for more change before they considered destroying the machine? Raise the stakes, one step at a time. Lead the character to the climax, where they will do something they never could have seen coming on page one.

I hope you all had an amazing Thanksgiving. I love having a few days off to be with the family and revel in all of my blessings. Happy Writing!


  1. Excellent post, Kelly! I love the Coke machine analogy -- it's perfect.

    I think you've helped me overcome something in my first chapter . . . hmmmm . . .

  2. I can't take credit for the Coke machine. It's the classic example of an extinction burst. I heard it more than once in psych classes because it's so relatable! Glad to bring it to your attention, though.

    Thanks! You'll have to let me know what you're talking about in ch 1.

  3. I'm glad you had a happy Thanksgiving!

    I like your Coke machine analogy too. In writing, I think that is attempting to hook a reader only to disappoint when they start the next chapter. It would be very silly to have your protagonist get a baseball bat at the end of a chapter and have them suddenly find change in their pocket.

  4. Great post, Kelly. Another blogger recommended STORY to me, and out of the mouths of two or three witnesses... :)

  5. Great post! Love the Coke machine analogy. :)

  6. Hey Jen- thanks for saying hi. I hope you had a great Thanksgiving, too. Say hi to Jim for us. I hope the post was helpful. I';m trying to pass on some of the things I'm struggling to apply. The concept is easy, but when I'm staring at all those words, it's not.

    Hey Krista- My library had Story, and it was so good I had to buy it. It's totally worth the money- and better than a lot of the writing classes I've gone to. They don't pay me to plug it, btw. Let me know what you think if you read it.

    Hi Karen- thanks for stopping in! Nice to see you.

  7. Thanks for the recommendation, Kelly. I love finding great writing books, and the part you quoted is certainly true.

  8. Hey Myrna- Oh, you have to read Story. It's the best. It's not a book about craft as it's for film, but it really helped me understand plot, pacing, and engaging the audience. Let me know what you think.

  9. McKee is one of my gods. He has a blog about screenwriting that analyzes a movie/genre each time. Very helpful with query hell.