Authorguy's Blog

Layered stakes

Posted on: January 19, 2014


I was just reading some of the comments from the Query Shark’s recent rant on pitch sessions, when I came across one that I was, well, unhappy with. It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice, especially on the subject of query letters and synopses, and yet it’s also a bit misleading. The advice is to always let the agent/editor/reader know what is at stake for the hero. Kind of hard to object, really. Obviously something has to be at stake, a story requires conflict and something to win or lose. My problem with this advice is that it sort of implies one thing. “What is at stake”, not what things are at stake, not to mention the possibility of multiple stakes, which may or may not have anything to do with each other.

You can have the domino set of stakes, where  the hero has to make bargain A to achieve Objective B, and then has to make Bargain C to achieve Objective A, and so on, a mounting collection of debts and obligations that become increasingly unlikely to ever be paid off in full. And they often aren’t. Stories of this type usually but not always have some ‘villains’ who end up losing whatever they risked to the hero. I can’t imagine how such a story would be pitched, unless the whole tangle is simply glossed over somehow, if that can be done without losing the point entirely.

But the title of this post isn’t ‘domino stakes’, so let me move on to the layered stakes I was thinking about, which, not surprisingly, are the sort of stakes my hero faces in my most recent novel. As I claimed (and feel free to disagree with me, it’s not like I’m any kind of an authority) in previous posts, plot point one is not necessarily related to the inciting incident of the story. The multiplicity of stakes reflects this. The II can have a very small stake which is sufficient to set up the hero for PP1 (note the clever use of shorthand notation so that I don’t have to keep writing ‘inciting incident’ and ‘plot point one’ all the time), but goes no further, in which case PP1 would need a totally different stake. This can of course be done well, but there’s not necessarily any link between the first stake and the second. it feels…accidental. I have a bias against accidental plots. I write by following the story and character logic, so to me each step should in some way proceed from the previous steps. An accidental plot shows the hand of the author, when to my mind the author should be invisible.

So my preference for layered stakes should come as no surprise. The first stake, whatever makes the II inciting in the first place, does not end with PP1. PP1 adds to it, layering on an additional bit of difficulty to the original task, but it doesn’t end or replace the original task. There is only one stake, but it gets bigger and bigger as the book progresses. John Smith’s sense of guilt is what sets in motion his drive to help the ghost of Francis, and that service to that spirit resolves the story, in spite of all the additional layers and complexities that have been discovered along the way.The difficulty here is keeping an eye on the original stake, and knowing how and why it grows at each step.

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