And now we come to the mysterious beating heart of what makes a novel work or not. These are the things I want to be talking about on this blog and the things that, in the end, I feel a touch inadequate to address.
I wrote a book, after all, (Quinlin’s Estate
) for which I’m not entirely sure the internal stakes that drove the entire plot were high enough. I tried to make them high. I tried to make readers feel Eve Lawson’s compelling need to try and save a historic estate from destruction but in the end I think readers may have shrugged and said, “It’s just a big house. Get over it.”
That’s not a fun place to be, trust me. (I think Ezekiel’s
internal stakes were more readily appreciated. Ian Merchant, an author, faced with the feeling that he may never be able to write again may be more universal, as a lot of times what a person does helps define who they are.)
The key to making your stakes enormous enough rests in that last sentence.
You need to play psychologist-of-the-world for a moment, take a look at your story, and play to the most universal concern you can find in that situation. What are readers most compelled by in their own lives? If you can latch onto one of those fears or wishes or dreams or nightmares you have yourself some compelling stakes.
For Quinlin’s Estate
, I didn’t set the stakes as “our universal need to save old buildings.” I tried to set them as, “what happens if the thing you place your faith in disappears?” That, I still think, works pretty well. The problem is that it was a harder leap for readers to make that Eve Lawson put her faith into a building than, say, a person. (Who knows? If any of you’ve read it, you can comment on my success or failure at this.)
I think novels offer self-proof that universality of stakes is what makes a great novel compelling. After all, Jane Austen hasn’t written in hundreds of years and yet here we are, still reading her, still finding ourselves mirrored in her characters. That doesn’t happen unless she chooses a timeless conflict.
After that, I think we step away from the stakes themselves and begin to look at supporting characteristics of the novel. How well was it written? How engaging is the story surrounding the stakes? And, as many folks have pointed out, how compelling are the characters for whom these “internal” stakes are important?
Emma Woodhouse, if not for her genuine selflessness and fetching naivety, would be insufferable in all her attempts to control those around her. Will Freeman’s subtle and usually humorous self-loathing actually helps us see he’s not quite so shallow as he wants to be in About a Boy
. Their dilemmas are powerful to us because they are neither perfect (at which point the stakes are meaningless) nor so imperfect as to have your readers start greatly loathing them. (Which leads me to a novel like Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections
, where I couldn’t get past the fact that I disliked all the characters.) In the final tally, we need characters to be “us”—flawed humans with a fighting chance to better ourselves.
If nothing else, this gets to how amazingly intricate and inextricable a novel really is. Plot, conflict, character, writing—everything needs to be in its proper place and to a proper degree. We’ve been talking about internal and external stakes isolated from that fact. And while I think they’re dreadfully important, they’re worthless without all the rest of the supporting nuts and bolts.
But piece by piece hopefully we can look at the full-spectrum of what it means to write and be our most prepared to tackle this crazy world of novels.
::Continue to Day 5 of Stakes and Conflict.