On August 3, 2017, Christie V Powell wrote, I have a problem spot here. The book I’m working on concerns the relationship between my main character Keita and her twin brother’s fiancé. My beta-reader suggested a wedding scene right before the climax to heighten the stakes when the couple is in danger. I like the idea but I don’t want to add more than a few hundred words to this chapter. So, any tips on cramming something as culturally significant as a wedding into a few paragraphs? Or should I skip it? So far I have this build up:
Zuri tried to look serious but she was bouncing on the balls of her feet. “It’s been a year since we were betrothed,” she said, “and without your parents here, you’re the head of the family…”
“You want to marry now?” Keita demanded. “Your people do all sorts of fancy stuff you couldn’t do here.”
“I know.” Zuri sighed. “But Glen said we can have more elaborate celebrations at the next festival.”
“You just have to give permission,” Glen said, “and…”
“Just give permission,” Keita repeated scornfully. “If I’m in charge, we do all the old traditions… the one where you’re chained together until the next festival…”
Zuri paled. “Three weeks?”
“And you can’t keep your bride unless you defend her from all the cousins carrying arrows…”
“No,” Glen said.
“Then the kidnapping…”
“Keita, come on. We’re at war, remember?”
“In that case, I say no.”
She let them squirm almost a minute before she said, “You’ve forgotten one thing. I’m not an adult yet. You’d have to ask Aunt Laurel.”
Keita tried to smother her laughter but it burst out anyway. Both gave her dirty looks before they fled the courtyard.
A back-and-forth followed:
Melissa Mead: A wedding right before the climax sounds like drama on top of drama, with no time to let the first one sink in. If the wedding’s important, maybe have all-out fun describing it in the previous chapter, then have the newlyweds enjoying some quiet domestic bliss when BANG! Danger happens. Unless the wedding scene is just a quiet happy interlude, with no great drama? Then the climax WOULD be a contrast.
And if they’re newlyweds and get separated to who-knows-what fate, ouch!
OTOH (just brainstorming here) maybe if they’re NOT married before the climax, and they’ve been planning it for weeks or months, and then they’re in danger, we’ll have an extra reason to root for them to survive and have their wedding. What kind of danger are we talking about?
Have you read Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic? That’s got a wedding contrast to break your heart.
Christie V Powell: I have read it, but it was years ago and the details get fuzzy.
I think this chapter is going to start with the wedding and end with a battle in which Keita and Zuri are captured. I’m just not sure how much of the wedding will occur before the battle begins… or if there’s a small ‘bliss’ scene in between. I don’t want it to be too melodramatic or cliche (I just showed the kids ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and thought about ‘Harry Potter 7’: both weddings get interrupted toward the end). Glen and Zuri have been romantic through the book and Keita finds it disgusting/annoying the whole time.
April: It’s kind of difficult to give advice without more context. But basically you need to make Keita and Zuri have a rocky relationship, right? So give lots of little opportunities to have them cut at each other, with increasing intensity. So here, Keita threatened Zuri (and Glen) with a dangerous wedding, but then revealed the joke so as not to seem mean (but still clearly passive aggressive). You need more passive aggressiveness from Zuri to Keita, and from Keita to Zuri. The characters need to go from “is she just teasing me?” to “oh, no, she didn’t” and retaliation.
Off topic, but why the names Keita, Zuri, and Glen? Glen seems very Caucasian, whereas Keita is a Japanese masculine name (in fact, when I read these excerpts from your story posted here and there, I have trouble remembering that your MC is female, not male).
Christie V Powell: Thanks for the tip. The girls were good friends and they still want to be, so this divider is really hard for both of them. I’ll see where I can add more conflict between the two. Thanks.
I was going for name meanings over origin. When I first chose the name Keita, the baby-name website I preferred listed it as a female Sanskrit name meaning forest. That was years and years ago and the site has changed, but the name stuck. Glen is also a forest term. Zuri is short for Azura, because she’s from a different kingdom with water abilities.
Me: I’m adding this question to my list–mostly in terms of stakes-raising, which is super important! In the meanwhile, though, I’m not sure chapter length is the most important factor in making a plot decision.
Christie V Powell: Thanks. I don’t usually base things on length, but I’m in the final stages and have already designed the cover (including spine width).
I was working on this scene today and I think I’ve got it where I want it. I had to move a couple scenes around that I hadn’t planned on, but it’s smoother. The women are still preparing for the wedding when the attack begins.
I’m glad the problem got resolved and the resolution came for plot reasons not chapter or book length or other mechanical considerations. For any of us who think about this mechanical stuff, length shouldn’t be determined, for example, by word count for a particular genre or age range. A story needs to be as long as it needs to be in order to be told, no longer or shorter.
Having said that, a chapter book for a seven-year old who isn’t a genius can’t reasonably be 200 pages long. But achieving a proper length will come organically from considering the kind of story that’s in synch with the level of sophistication of a child at that age. We’re probably not going to have so many plot twists that the result is a long book. We’re also going to read other books for that age group to prime ourselves for getting it right.
And I’m in favor of as few words as we need. My manuscripts always shrink in revision as the verys, the reallys, the almosts get the boot. Do you guys know The Elements of Style, AKA Strunk and White? It’s a gem of concision. I just copied this snippet of a Boston Globe review: “No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume.”
Hah! The review is backwards! I’d say, No book in more space, with more words, will help any writer as much as this persistent little volume.” It’s a 105-page style-and-usage book that came out in its present form in 1959, and its Amazon sales ranking, as students set off for college, is 38! I hope I’ve internalized most of its precepts. I used to read its sentences out loud for the pleasure of their economy and elegance.
Onto the crux of Christie V Powell’s question. I love raising stakes!
I applaud Christie V Powell’s decision to bring on the attack before the wedding. We can hike the tension just as much before as after, but the former gets us there quicker.
I’d even argue that stakes are intrinsically higher before the wedding–before fulfillment rather than after. I think this goes for any uncompleted versus completed goal. Suppose our MC Sami is the first in her family to attend college. She’s doing well in her senior year, completing a double major in international finance and Chinese. Do we want disaster to strike just before graduation or just after?
I say just before. As she’s in the middle of the crisis she thinks, I was so close. Almost made it. I find that more poignant and wrenching than her thought, At least I got my degree–though both activate the worry part of my brain. But with the first, she has more to lose as she makes choices in the story climax.
In general, how do we raise the stakes?
1. The reader has to care about our characters. In the excerpt Christie V Powell shared, I find it endearing that Zuri bounces on the balls of her feet, which is such an exuberant, young person’s gesture. As a reader, I don’t want anything to destroy that enthusiasm.
And the affection these characters feel for each other is appealing and helps them be likable. I don’t want their connection broken by separation or (gasp!) death.
2. We can strengthen a connection between our characters with thoughts, which will also raise the stakes. Going back to Sami, we can have her call her dad to tell him that she may not graduate. She can notice how grumpy he sounds when he says hello and how that changes as soon as he hears her voice. She thinks about how revealing his voice is and dreads hearing it change again when she delivers her news. As he speaks, or before she dials, she can think of the treasured box in which he keeps mementos of her academic achievements: report cards, A+ papers, debate team trophies, graduation photos. The reader can’t help loving them both–even before the conversation starts.
3. When it does start, dialogue can up the ante. Sami can start the conversation ominously by asking her dad if he’s been taking his heart meds. Oy! She cares about him so much that’s the first thing she asks, rather than launching into her problems! Oy! He’s fragile. He can reassure her that he never misses a pill, and besides doctors always try to scare patients. He feels fine. She isn’t to worry. Then he says, “What’s the good news?” A dagger enters the reader’s heart.
4. Sami can react physically to her father’s question. Her toes curl. Her fingers clutching her cell phone turn a lighter color. Her stomach seems to turn over. The reader’s stomach clenches, too.
5. As she speaks, Sami looks around her dorm room at the school pennant, the posters she brought from home, the throw blanket that her grandmother crocheted–this beloved setting.
6. We ratchet up the threat level as our story progresses. At the beginning, we establish the conflict, whatever it is. Maybe there’s a scene in which the problem appears. Let’s say Sami’s best friend catches her in a little lie, nothing consequential; the lie doesn’t spare anyone’s feelings or get Sami herself out of any difficulty, but it does give her credit in a situation that she doesn’t entirely deserve. Her friend just says, “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” and the story moves on. However, the reader notices. As the plot progresses, the lies pile up. The reader loves Sami for all her great qualities and her humanity and becomes more and more worried about the web she’s tangling herself up in.
To take off from Christie V Powell’s story, the reader finds out about the enemy early in the story, while peace talks are going on. There is an enemy, but it’s likely to work out. Then the peace talks dissolve, but the enemy is disorganized. However, gradually, the threat looms more and more.
7. Details bring it all together. The noise of the wedding prep covers the enemy’s approach. Pots clatter. Drummers practice their rhythms. Children shout and babies wail. Glen receives a gift that means a lot to him and distracts him from his usual vigilance. Keita says something she shouldn’t to Zuri, and a chasm opens between the two. Just then, the dogs start barking in alarm.
Finally, and this has nothing to do with stakes-raising, I enjoyed the humor in Christie V Powell’s excerpt, especially the bizarre wedding rituals!
Here are three prompts, though you can spin prompts from lots of the situations above:
∙ Write the conversation between Sami and her dad. Break the reader’s heart.
∙ Write the scene that sets the stage for her being denied graduation. You can use my idea that a lie she’s told is behind it, or any other reason.
∙ Write the scene when Snow White’s evil stepmother is told for the last time by the magic mirror that she’s the fairest in the land. Foreshadow that trouble is on the way.
Have fun, and save what you write!