Eek! Stabbing the Raised Stake

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!

  1. Zoe/TheSixthHobbit says:

    Great post Gail! Your blog helps me out so much!

    Maybe you guys can help me out with a problem I’ve been struggling with…

    So in my WIP, my MC, Sage, has six suitors she has to pick from (none of them are going to end up working out, but she’ll start to fall for a few of them). Usually making up unique characters isn’t that hard for me, but creating and writing six guys, all roughly the same age, all the potential romantic interests of the MC, is becoming a challenge for me. I don’t want the guys to be too similar, and I also don’t want them to all be too cliche. Anybody have any suggestions?


    • What if you tried something to base them off of? For instance, there are six colors of the rainbow… what would red personified be? Green? Or you could choose people you know, characters you admire… not that your characters will stay true to any of these, but they might be a fun place to get juices flowing.
      You can also play with idea generators. Check these out:

    • For starters, these are all suitors, which usually means they’re all guys who want to marry her, and they probably aren’t all ideal for your MC. You can have a couple she doesn’t like that much because they’re too forward or they’re indelicate or something. As for making them all different, the easiest way (for me) is to come up with a smallish detail in their appearance (a diamond earring, highlights in the hair, a necklace they never take off, etc.) that is unique to them alone and keep bringing it up so that everyone can remember, “ah, this is the guy with the earring”. Hope that’s helpful.

    • They probably have different reasons for wanting to marry her, and, for example, her childhood pen-pal will act differently from the guy who wants to marry her for her fortune.
      Or to narrow it down further: 2 guys want to marry her for her fortune, but one is looking for his “social equal,” while another wants to be able to help his aging mother.
      Or maybe he wants to help the girl he truly loves and is willing to give up his life with her to do it…and how would your MC react if she found THAT out?

      One of my favorite questions for delving into character is “Why is this person doing what they’re doing, as opposed to something else?”

    • Depending on the MC and how she views her suiters it might not be necessary to vary the characters. If none of them will work out in the end then all the unrequited lovers might blend together. If the MC is humorous she might give them nicknames based off their appearance and habits [for example Greasy Hair or Mr. Mansplain]

    • Consider what sort of a person would work well with Sage. Quite possibly, several vastly different personalities could work. If she’s strongly introverted, she might be attracted to another introvert because he understands the need for space and is okay with silence. At the same time, she might be attracted to an extrovert, because he does all the talking for both of them, and gets her through social occasions with ease. She might be attracted to one because he has similar interests. Another one might have a passion for something that she never thought of before, but she admires him for it, and wants to help him. You know Gail’s Mighty List? Make a list of characteristics that Sage would find attractive, even if some on the list are apparently opposites. Use those to springboard off of for the guys she actually starts to fall for. You could make a list of turn-off traits too.

      And don’t forget to consider what the guys find attractive in her, and what kind of guy would like her for what reason. Others have already mentioned some of the outer things like social standing and money. If she’s an extrovert, a shy guy may like her for her confidence. (Then she may view him as too quiet, or she may enjoy being with him because he’s calm, or because she sees a side of him that he doesn’t show just anyone.) If she’s impulsive, a calm guy might like the spice she adds to life, and an impulsive guy might love it that someone else “gets it.”

      As for being cliche, so long as the characters are well rounded, like real people, they won’t be cliche. In real life, I often look at someone I know and think they are the epitome of The Nerd, or The Popular Girl, or The Grandma. But though he may be the epitome of The Nerd, he’s not a cliche. There never was another nerd quite like him.

  2. What does everybody think of changing viewpoints? If there’s more than one POV character in a book, do they need to take turns in a predictable pattern, or does that not matter as long as the author makes it clear whose head we’re in at the start of each scene?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m adding the question to my list, but can you say a little about what’s going on in your story?

      And would anyone like to weigh in?

      • The first book starts out with chapters from several viewpoints, then settles into the MC’s viewpoint for the last 2/3 of the book or so. I did it because:
        Prologue- the MC’s only a few weeks old, so the POV is more “camera eye.”
        (MC’s POV for a bit.)
        Then the MC is blind and in a cage, so he’s limited in what he can take in. Also, I want the reader to feel sorry for him, but not for him to feel sorry for himself. So I switch to the POV of a demon-hunter in training who sympathizes with him and has more freedom to act.
        Then we see him from his uncle’s POV, so we can get a feel for both of the cultures the MC’s struggling to live in.
        Then we see him from the POV of an innocent child.
        It’s pretty much the MC’s POV from then on.
        It works logically in my head,, and agents haven’t complained about it, but I worry that it could be jarring for the casual reader. (Especially since the demon-hunter in training doesn’t turn up again right away.)

    • ‘Bella at Midnight’ by Diane Stanley does this. I actually really liked seeing the story from different perspectives, but I know some reviewers were critical. It added more depth to the story. I think it would be far worse to throw in a new POV at the end than to start out with multiples and then settle into one. ‘Bella’ also works because the storyline is the same even though the POV is different. I think several people have commented before that we had some trouble with ‘Lord of the Rings’ because of the jumps between two plotlines.
      So far I’ve stuck with one POV, but I’m planning on jumping between several for my next NaNoWriMo novel. I’m not planning on sticking to a predictable pattern, although I did appreciate it when Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Elantris’ did that.

    • I don’t think it matters if there’s a pattern or not. Patterns are nice, but I would think they would be more difficult to write, depending on the story, of course. Without a pattern, you can choose which character would show this particular scene best.

      I think if part of the story seems to call for single POV and part seems to call for multiple, it would work best if there is some kind of clear division. I don’t know how a typical “Part One, Part Two” division works for submitting a story, whether that’s cumbersome to do, or if there are any reasons to not do it. There could also be ways of making a division clear without the use of a hard and fast “part” break. You’ve mentioned having a twenty year gap somewhere in the story. If that corresponds to where you go from multiple to single POV, I’d say you’ve got a natural break. Another possibility is to title the chapters with one theme for one section, and switch it up for another section. Basically, I think acknowledging that there’s been a change of some kind is better than breezing on through.

      Does your MC have any POV scenes between the Prologue and where he takes the single POV? If not, the very fact that you’re now switching to him would be a clear enough change.

  3. You remembered the 20-year gap! 🙂 Nope, that’s after it’s all him.

    Yes, it’s his POV until he gets imprisoned, and mostly afterward, except for the bit from the child’s POV. In the cases where it’s someone else’s POV, he’s generally too physically incapacitated to no much more than be really miserable. Plus it gives us a look at both how others see him, and how he sees himself. And in the beginning, there’s a big gap there.

  4. Bookfanatic102 says:

    This may seem kinda random but I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (For the 6th or 7th time) and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is (And Volleys is totally awesome)
    do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive? and making my characters more fun to read and write?

  5. Got a raised stakes/tension question!

    My book isn’t a mystery, but somebody in it’s doing bad things and my MC (Yep, Malak again) is trying to find out who. Which sounds more interesting?

    Write it like a traditional mystery, plant some clues and red herrings, and let the reader try to guess who the villain is.


    Let the reader see who the villain is, and watch them lay their traps for our unsuspecting hero, who’s walking obliviously to his doom.

  6. Alright, so I have a fabulously difficult journey that my main characters are going on, full of life-threatening natural obstacles, with time slipping quickly through their fingers, and an ever-looming bad guy (not to mention, getting chased by castle guards, who don’t realize that the mc’s are trying to do good!). My problem is, I feel like (although the bad guy wants to GET mc’s personally), the difficulties aren’t personal enough. I wish there was more of a Hattie versus Ella sort of thing going on, and I was hoping for some advice on getting that vibe, without changing the entire course of my plot-line. I know that’s really vague, but I’m hoping good advice will come! Thanks! 🙂

      • Porthos, the head guard, he’s a friend, and all of his fellow guards follow his lead- the tension comes when Porthos thinks that the man leading our MC to her destination is actually kidnapping her… thus, a few exciting chases. I love writing chase scenes 🙂

    • In the best stories, the outside plot and the inside plot are tied together. The heroine is struggling with something within herself (overcoming fear, finding self-value, fitting in, etc) which ties into what’s going on outside of herself. Her weaknesses make things worse, but eventually her strengths solves the problem. Generally in the climax, the heroine overcomes her inner obstacle first, which enables her to solve the outside ones.

  7. so I have a question regarding antagonists.
    my book is a tangle of past and present, with roughly 3 villains/antagonists.
    the first is in the past, and is a misguided and slightly less than sane murderer.
    the second is a caring uncle with a huge prejudice against humans, and a belief that he can only help people if they follow his commands exactly.
    the third is in a way my main antagonist, since they most immediately threaten my heroine, however they aren’t revealed until very near the end. this makes for a really tense final battle, and an excellent climax, but very little obstacles for my heroine along her journey. the flashbacks to the past with the other two antagonists provide lots of tension, but I wonder if that’s enough? also: my heroine keeps doing rather rash and antagonistic things herself, which fit well with her character. (committing arson for example)
    is it okay to have an antagonistic protagonist, or should I work towards making her nicer?

    • Anti-heros are actually rather common. TV Tropes has an article on them:
      They’re fine as long as they’re also likeable. Maui from Moana is a good example. He’s a little too iffy to be a traditional hero, especially since he started the whole problem in the first place, he’s arrogant and hinders the heroine in her quest, yet he’s also loveable.

      You can have the Big Bad causing trouble but not make it known until the end. I tried to do that in my first back. The true villain surfaces multiple times, but most of them aren’t really obvious unless you reread. He steals a vital message, attacks in animal form, and amplifies harmful emotions when the characters are traveling. Those mostly hinge on his magical abilities but you could also find ways that he could be messing stuff up, but they don’t know it. A red herring might help– the villain attacks Harry Potter in the first book but they don’t realize it because they blame someone else.

      • thanks for answering!
        I’ve been told by those who have read my book sample (since asking this question) that my MC is sort of endearing, because her antagonism comes partially from uncertainty because of being adopted, and needing to test and prove the love of her adoptive family and other loved ones constantly. The arson seemed normal to her, as she’s been raised in a fire driven culture, and needed a bargaining chip to gain information.
        one thing I didn’t expect that I’m having issues with now is the likability of my supporting character, who I’ve written as snarky, though as bits of her troubled past and true care for those around her are revealed I think she becomes more likable, so I hope she’ll grow on my readers.

  8. Depends on why they’re antagonistic, I think. If they’re heartless, cruel, and just generally unpleasant to be around, no one will want to “spend time in her head.” If she’s committing arson for reasons that the reader can understand, if not agree with, and/or is interesting in other ways, then yes.

  9. Wow. I’ve been reading posts on here for quite a while now, but this is the first time I’ve commented. Amazing blog, and awesome post as usual. 🙂

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