June 11 – 17: “What are high stakes and why are they important?”

ITW Members Joseph Amiel, Eyre Price,  Maria Hudgins and Robert Dugoni discuss the importance of high stakes. You won’t want to miss it!

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Maria Hudgins lives in Hampton, VA with her two Bichons Holly and Hamilton. She loves to travel and always visits the site of a story before she writes about it. Her plans for this year will take her to Africa and to Mexico. Her mystery novels include four Dotsy Lamb Travel Mysteries, the last of which will be out this month,  Scorpion House, and The Man on the Istanbul Train. Publisher’s Weekly calls Death of a Second Wife, “a cozy that readers will hate to see end,” Kirkus says “a mystery with an intriguing group of suspects,” and Library Journal calls it, “an unforgettable wedding party cum murder plot.”

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed and New York Times Best Selling Author of the David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One and The Conviction. He is also the author of the best-selling stand alone novel Damage Control as well as the nonfiction expose, The Cyanide Canary. Robert also has contributed to several anthologies and is a speaker and national teacher on the craft of writing. Bodily Harm and Murder One were each chosen one of the top five thrillers of 2010 and 2011, respectively.

Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

Eyre Price was raised in Northeastern Pennsylvania, but has called a lot of places “Home.” A litigator for 15 years, Eyre left the law to become a stay-at-home dad–and write. His debut novel, BLUES HIGHWAY BLUES, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in June 2012. He has traveled the Blues Highway from Minnesota to Louisiana and stood at Robert Johnson’s fabled crossroads. He lives in Illinois with his wife and son.

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8 Comments
  1. We all know that readers have to CARE what happens or they will quit reading. Readers care when the protagonist cares. Your hero must care, desperately, about what’s at stake. That’s what high stakes are. It’s not necessarily an end-of-the-universe scenario because, if the universe in question seems unreal, the reader won’t care if it ends or not.
    On the other hand, a kitten up a tree can be high stakes if it’s a real kitten and the child crying on the ground below is also real. I, for one, will not stop reading until the kitten is safe.
    High stakes, however, usually means a situation where the outcome is a bit larger than a stuck kitten. The destruction of a town, a civilization, or all life on earth—that would be big. But first you have to convince the reader it’s the same earth he lives on.

  2. I go through this dilemma almost every novel, and I teach the subject! The temptation to think readers will care if our protagonist is tasked with saving the world is always large. But unless you’re writing a James Bond or Clive Cussler type novel, it’s usually also a mistake. the temptation is to try to raise the stakes by increasing the potential impact on the world or by making the antagonist not just a CEO, but a CEO of a fortune five hundred company, better yet a Senator? The problem with raising these kind of stakes is the credibility factor usually plummets. The plausible scenarios become fewer and fewer. So what to do?
    I usually start by asking, “How are the stakes personal to the protagonist?” Why should my protagonist care? If my protagonist doesn’t really care, why should the reader? I’ll give you an example. As I began Murder One my thought was to write a book in which my protagonist, David Sloane, took on the Russian mafia. High stakes indeed and danger lurking everywhere. But as I researched and plotted I realized the story had a much more personal angle. The mother of a daughter who has died of a heroin overdose comes to Sloane and asks for his help. Not just any woman, but a woman he knows and is attracted to. Now we have a personal story about drugs and the impact they have on individual people’s lives. Sloane, having just suffered his own personal tragedy in Bodily Harm can relate to the woman and to her pain. He cares. He wants to find justice for her daughter. If Sloane is invested, so is the reader.
    Does this mean we can’t have a public stake? No. You definitely should. In this case the public stake is that it could have been anyone’s child. Everyone’s child is at risk to the temptation and to the possilbe tragedy of drugs. It is a battle we all benefit from when won. So I always ask both questions: What is the personal stake for my protagonist? What is the public stake?

  3. High stakes are basically what keep the reader involved as the plot evolves. In engrossing thrillers, to take our genre, the stakes keep getting higher and usually more personal until life and death, not only for the protagonist, but usually for a loved one, hang in the balance; it is literally worth the protagonist’s risking his/her life to accomplish the mission or find the murderer or decipher the mystery.

    The alternative is to have the reader think: “Been there, done that. Bo-ring!” And then turn to writers who know how to build those stakes higher and higher and make the reader care desperately about the fate of the characters involved. Ka-ching! for them. The bread line for you.

    In my courtroom thriller, A Question of Proof, which is launching at the end of the month, the protagonist is a burned-out criminal defense lawyer disillusioned by a lifetime of defending scummy criminals and the DA’s hounding him on false charges. He is ready to pack it in when he falls in love with the estranged wife of Philadelphia’s powerful newspaper publisher. Accused of killing her husband, she implores the protagonist to defend her. Now at stake are the life of the woman he loves and his desire, finally, to defend a person he is sure is innocent. But is she? What if he is defending, in love with, and sleeping with a killer?

    At each turning point in the story, the stakes are raised until the protagonist’s happiness, his honor, and even the very essence of his soul are on the line, making the reader, I hope, desperately care about outcome.

  4. Stakes can be raised when they engage the reader on more than one level, say, personal and global. A good example is Jurassic Park. The immediate threat is to the scientists and two children. But one can’t ignore the threat to all humanity if these creatures escape the park. We’re most anxious about the characters we’ve come to know and like, but in the back of our minds we know this could happen to all of us.

  5. Like the honorary Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse, thriller writers have long threatened the whole of humanity with its ultimate demise. Corporate conspiracies and terrorist plots. Pandemics and reconstituted dinosaur DNA. There are no limits to the diabolical fates we dream up for this big, blue marble of ours.

    And with good reason. A solid “end of the world as we know it” plot makes it easy to grab our audience’s attention. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a gun to the reader’s head and shouting “You are involved!” It’s undeniably effective.

    Effective, but not necessary. While we speculate what exactly our Mayan ancestors may have foretold of our future, the cold, hard truth of this life is that each of us faces our own private apocalypse. I can’t say I’m an adherent to the philosophical tenets Solipsisim, but I can’t deny that one day my world is going to come to an end. (Hopefully not for a long, long time. And, if I’m lucky, not even then. See, Kurzweil, Raymond) But all of us live on the precipice and from a very personal perspective, my end will be every bit as final and absolute as one of Flemming’s baddies actually detonating their doomsday device.

    As thriller writers, the trick is to create characters that compel our readers to share in the peril of a very personal “end of the world.” In Daniel Erickson, the hero of Blues Highway Blues, I tried to create a man who maybe wasn’t always likable, but whose faults and fears were shared by many of us and whose efforts to overcome them would offer an invitation to join him in that personal adventure.

    There is, admittedly, very little at stake. The world will keep turning whether Daniel survives his odyssey or not. The hope, however, is that the reader will finding him deserving of the emotional investment necessary to bind their fate together for a couple hundred pages. And if that happens, then the scope of the stage doesn’t matter at all.

  6. What are high stakes and why are they important?
    Buddhists will tell you that desire is the root of suffering, but everyone wants something. What we hunger for differs for each of us, but getting what we need—or think we need—is what drives us through our days.

    As thriller writers, desire is the carrot (or stick) we use to motivate our characters through the twists and turns of our plots. Without it, our characters lack motivation for the extraordinary things we have them do and because of that begin to lose believability. People just don’t do the sort of things that make for good thrillers unless they want something. Really want something.

    Of course, we all want something different. It could be something as base as just an amount of money or some physical possession. Or it can be something as enlightened as freedom. Or simply preservation of life itself.

    And often those desires overlap one another. Every morning the lion gets up and wants to eat, every morning the gazelle gets up and wants to live. High stakes are the fuel for the fires of conflict that are necessary for any drama to exist. The more our characters oppose one another in their desire, the hotter those flames burn.

    And while high stakes are the device necessary to keep the characters in the action and the action moving, they are also what keep the reader turning pages. Whatever the stakes might be, they not only have to be believable to keep the characters moving forward through the plot, but they must be something with which the reader can identify. Because sharing that desire, sharing the excitement of rolling the dice is what a good thriller is all about.

  7. I face this same question of stakes when working with young playwrights (and of course when writing my books!) It’s crucial. And as you say, making the reader care about the protagonist who cares deeply is the key. But–don’t laugh–it helps to figure out a financial angle. Something is being bartered, lost, won, earned, etc. It’s not the money in the long run. It’s what the money measures. Who is willing to compromise for it, to die for it? As I tell playwrights this is Denmark’s throne, the pub in Playboy of the Western World, the job or the estate in a million mystery novels. I think. What do you think?

  8. An interesting idea. I’ll have to think about this. We mystery writers have been told, “You absolutely have to have a murder.” But some of the golden age mysteries have nothing more than a jewel theft to solve. I don’t think this works anymore. A pearl necklace, no matter how “perfectly matched,” just isn’t high enough stakes to make it interesting. Today’s readers say “that’s what they get for spending so much money on rocks.”
    But I’ve wandered away from the point you were making, haven’t I? Whatever is at stake may be lost, won, bartered, or hoarded. What’s it worth to you? Is it worth your life? Someone else’s life?

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