June 25 – July 1: “How do you raise the stakes to the next level?”

This week ITW Members Joseph Amiel, Eyre Price, Miranda Parker and C.E. Lawrence discuss what it takes to raise the stakes to the next level. You won’t want to miss it!

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Miranda Parker is the author of A GOOD EXCUSE TO BE BAD, Book 1 of the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter Series. This journalist/book critic has written over fifty magazine articles. She began writing fiction in 2005 after taking a writing workshop taught by Chuck Palanuik. Now Parker writes romcom suspense for Kensington Books. She resides near a Georgia horse ranch and her daughter’s Girl Scout Troop.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright and poet whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). SILENT SCREAMS, SILENT VICTIM and SILENT KILLS are the first three books in her Lee Campbell thriller series. Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge. Titan Press recently reissued her first Sherlock Holmes novel, THE STAR OF INDIA.

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.

 

 

15 Comments
  1. In the TV quiz show Jeopardy, the stakes get doubled part way through the show and are raised again at the end in Final Jeopardy. For that last difficult question, the contestants can risk up to whatever they have won so far in the hope of correctly answering it and doubling what they’ve put at risk. Perhaps more important, the top money winner gets to return to compete for more prize money in the next game.

    In my courtroom thriller, A Question of Proof, launching at the end of July, the protagonist, Dan Lazar, a renowned criminal-defense lawyer, is divorced and badly misses his son. Moreover, burned-out and disillusioned by his success at winning acquittals for people he knows are guilty of horrendous crimes, he is n b ready to call it quits. He falls in love with Susan Boelter, the estranged wife of an autocratic newspaper publisher, who is seeking to take everything from her in divorce proceedings, including custody of their daughter. Susan’s happiness and consequently Dan’s as well are at risk. Suddenly, Peter is found dead, and Susan is charged with his murder, raising the stakes again for Susan and Dan. He yields to her entreaty that he defend her at the murder trial, an unorthodox and personally wrenching arrangement that puts more at risk for Dan. The stakes are raised even higher by Dan’s urgent inner need to use his lawyering skill to save at least one person he can truly believe is innocent. In this case that person is also the woman he loves. But is she innocent or merely using him/  Events put his certainty in doubt.  Ultimately at stake is virtually everything Dan’s consideres worth living for. The outcome turns on a question of proof.

    Jeopardy is not just a game, it’s at the heart of a thriller.

      1. The only difference is that in a good story (in my opinion), a protagonist, or someone for whom the protagonist feels a duty of care, will be “worse off than before” if he fails.

        On Jeopardy, the protagonist may not win as much as he could have, but when it’s all said and done, win or lose, he goes back home and continues with his life as before. His expenses are/were paid by the company that produces Jeopardy, so he didn’t really lose money. His family was not held hostage while he competed (now there’s a story), and no one is threatening to kill him if he doesn’t get the right answer and win the big bucks (Except maybe his wife, who really doesn’t mean it. Or does she?). 🙂

        Still, I like it. It is a very illustrative, thought-provoking example.

  2. I think the example Joseph presents is a good one. This question lies at the heart of so much writing, not just thriller writing. It seems to me there are a limited number of techniques or tricks or turns available to us as writers, and we have to look carefully at the story we’re writing to find ways to keep that story arc rising! That’s why they pay us the big bucks….

    Certainly deepening the story and making it personal is a tried and true method that seldom fails if used well.

    Surprise is also a great tool – as Eric Edson points out in his intriguing book, The Story Solution, Act I in a screenplay ends with a Stunning Surprise. I think thriller writers would do well to think about this idea. Of course, there are a limited number of surprises in any given story line, but I think they can be dumped into two rather broad categories:

    1) Out of Left Field
    2) Coming from within the story – i.e., from information the reader already knows.

    I’ll say more about this later – that’s all for now. I want to see what everyone else has to say.

  3. How Do You Raise the Stakes to the Next Level?

    A couple weeks ago the Roundtable wrestled with the question “What are high stakes?” We came away with a shared conclusion that there was no specific entry fee for a thriller. It could be anything from a stash of cash to the fate of the world as we know it, just so long as what was put on the table was sufficient to motivate the protagonist and to keep the reader engaged from the front cover to the back.

    Still, as with a good game of poker, a thriller requires a bit more than simply putting in. A writer can’t afford to stand pat on merely making the entry and then expect the reader will play along with any real interest. The “thrill” part of what we do necessitates steadily raising the stakes over and over again until everything is out on the table awaiting a final turn of a card and the reader is left breathlessly awaiting Fate’s final decision as to whether the hero will win the pot or lose everything. The game that we deal requires a steady escalation of stakes.

    In my debut novel, Blues Highway Blues (released Tuesday the 26th. Wish me luck!) my protagonist, music promoter Daniel Erickson, comes to realize–as he’s being hung from his ankles from the balcony of a Vegas hotel penthouse–that his misguided decision to borrow money from a deranged Russian mobster has put his life in danger. Ante in. Daniel’s life and the gruesome end he’s facing are enough to get the game under way, but it’s just an opening blind.

    In order to keep the action moving forward, it’s necessary to put more into the pot. A lot more. And so while Daniel is desperately running to save his own life, it suddenly dawns on him that here’s a very real danger that the crazed mobster may decide it will be more effective to deal with the delinquent debt by applying penalties and interest to Daniel’s son. Call and raise.

    Where the opening was to bring Daniel’s life into jeopardy and activate the reader’s own primal instinct for self-preservation, the stakes are raised considerably by involving a child and activating that hyper sense of parental protection. Many of us may be somewhat fatalistic about our own outcomes, but there is nothing that matters more to most parents than our children’s well-being. The stakes are now as great as they can be.

    Once the pot is set, the pressure can still be increased by drawing steadily towards the final reveal at just the right pace. Wrap it up too quickly and it all seems anti-climactic. Draw it out too long and there’s a real risk of losing the reader’s interest. So, hand by hand, the plot has to work towards that big reveal, the point where the final cards are turned over one at a time and we learn whether Leady Luck will let our hero walk away from the table with all the night’s winnings…or maybe not at all.

    And in the end, that moment when the stakes are their highest is why we all play the game.

  4. Unable to sleep in a Chicago hotel room, I found possible opening lines running through my head (“If she hadn’t broken his heart, her obituary probably wouldn’t have caught his eye.”). Please don’t use that one, but I also immediately thought of all the planning it would take to turn it into a novel and decided I had too much on my plate right now to continue. So I turned on my iPad and read what others had written about raising the stakes. Carole’s excellent comments about the effectiveness of surprise and the hallowed three-act structure brought to mind a recent screenplay I had read, which contained none of the techniques we’ve been discussing and will have to depend on moody camera shots and good acting. A story isn’t a photo album. I just didn’t care about it. I thought, If only a good writer and not someone who is solely a director had built the story! In this instance the screenplay is about to be produced as an indie feature, so my supposition will soon be tested.

  5. Eyre,
    Loved your comments, and the metaphor about poker is such a good one! Best of luck with your debut novel, and that too was an excellent example, I thought.

    Joseph,
    Ooo, what a great line – don’t worry, I won’t use it, though I admit to some envy. I really like your use of the word “build” for storytelling – that is such an excellent way to think of creating a story. It does feel like putting up a building or sculpture – and of course, we have to “build” tension as well, don’t we?

    The key, as you say, is to make the readers CARE about the characters – and the only tried and true way to do that is to continually raise the stakes and the story tension.

    Here’s another thought on the topic of raising the stakes. Use something the reader has already seen but forgotten about. In other words, you’ve planted a clue or story element early on that seems to have little significance, but then you use it to ratchet up the tension later in the story. It’s like taking up a (seemingly) dropped thread and weaving it into the fabric of the story.

    A great example of this is in the astonishing Korean film, Poetry – part crime drama, part family saga, where a stroke-ridden old man makes a sexual advance to his caregiver. Later in the film, the same caregiver – the story’s protagonist – uses that advance to her advantage, in a form of subtle blackmail we never saw coming (or at least I didn’t.)

    Dennis Lehane does this very well in Shutter Island, where he plants story elements early on, then uses them in the climax to raise the stakes and explain character motivation.

  6. Risk, temptation, surprises, an opponent who may hold all the “right cards,” a character in a position of trust who becomes a threat . . . all great examples of how CONFLICT raises the stakes in a story.

  7. “How do I raise the stakes to the next level?”

    I always put pieces of myself in all my main characters, including the bad girl. Doing that for me gives my character’s some matter, fullness, and a reason to be in the novel. Everyone has to have a purpose either for my main character or against my main character and each character has to have a huge want that I sprinkle throughout the series. Most importantly my main characters, and yes, including the bad girl or boy, must be consumed by the thing that keeps me up at night.

    In my first novel A GOOD EXCUSE TO BE BAD I wrote the story because I was in the process of separating from my ex. We had a child together. I desperately wanted our daughter’s happiness, providence, and safety to remain in tact throughout this ordeal. Yet, how could that miracle be? She was going to be affected by this in a way that would hurt her and I wasn’t ready for that. So…Angel, my main character’s main motivation in the entire series, but especially for this book was to do whatever it took to make sure that not her only child, but her sister’s children, whose father had just been murdered, keep their childhood psyche intact. The cast that rounded out that story either worked toward helping Angel meet that goal or they worked against it.

    Now in book 2, SOMEONE BAD and SOMETHING BLUE (which releases nationwide today) Angel has to deal with another thing that kept me up at night. A few years ago after I begun building a new life for myself I met a man who wanted a relationship with me and wanted to be my daughter’s father figure. Great guy, who was ready to step into a huge responsibility. However, for me, I didn’t know how this would work. After what we (my daughter and I ) have both been through what would happen if we introduced another adult into this dynamic? The questions, the scenarios, the what ifs consumed me. And so… I’m writer and thus, the sequel.

    Now Angel joins a manhunt with the US Marshals to chase a bootlegger’s hit man. That doesn’t sound like huge stakes are raised. However, the cast again will either work toward Angel getting what she wants or work against it. This time, however, she has to stop this hit man before he murders an innocent infant girl whose parents are former friends and the target for this hit. I take the stakes up even further when her horrible uncle, who she wishes she could disown, the murdered friend and the hitman may have ties to the death of her daughter’s father. His murder is still unresolved. Now her own child and family lives are at stake, if this guy isn’t captured. All of that of course is a huge nightmare for parents like me.

    In short, I raise the stakes in my books [Angel Crawford] Series by creating a larger that life character who has universal problems that every can relate to then I make the worst thing that could happen to me happen to her. Lol. I’m such a bad girl writer. Kekeke

  8. Miranda, thanks for sharing how your characters are a piece of you. The same goes for me, tapping into all those emotions, scars, and joy to create characters. I think its what gives our words a richness, right? As far as high stakes I love to take everything away from my characters, even the ones I love, and leave them so bloodied that they may never recover…unless they find it within themselves to bring themselves back. Sometimes I give them back what they had, sometimes its something new.

  9. @donna yes! I just did a plotting workshop with a group of budding novelists. When I told them that they will have to destroy their main character some became nervous and others almost in shock. They were terrified of doing that. But it works.

  10. Miranda, your last comments about destroying your main character really got me thinking. One of the best ways to raise the stakes is indeed to risk everything as a writer. By that I mean, put your protagonist in a a situation so desperate that you have no idea how he or she can possible survive. If you can validly get that character out the other end, that may be scary to the writer, but it will be truly thrilling to the reader.

  11. Anyone ever kill off a beloved character that surprised you? (I mean, the decision to kill them off…. someone close to the protagonist.) That’s a good way to raise the stakes.

    I’ll start: I remember when I was writing my first thriller, Silent Screams, I woke up one day and realized a key character had to die. No choice. Had to. I was really surprised by the revelation. But I enjoyed that, because it meant the story was coming together organically, if you know what I mean.

    Anyone else have a story?

    1. No story, but what you say makes sense. The death of someone close to the protagonist can add a little more track to the emotional roller coaster ridden by the protagonist AND the reader.

  12. I tried to kill off the protagonist’s lover in the first draft of my first novel. My editor, who also happened to be Editor in Chief and a powerful figure in publishing, told me the woman had to come back to life in a rewrite. Apart from being she who must be obeyed, she was right, of course, which is why a very vibrant figure returned from the dead. The character practically wrote herself in the next draft and was a sparkling presence throughout the book; I think she was grateful for the chance to live again.

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