When you’re a screenwriter, “raise the stakes” is a command you hear often. Put your hero in more danger, make failure more cataclysmic, get your audience on the edge of their seats and compel them to stay there.
Raising the stakes can be difficult in a romance novel. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Girl doesn’t get boy? Most readers and publishers insist on an HEA ending, so that’s probably not going to go over well.
In Goddess, I raised the stakes high by making my heroine a married mother of three daughters. She has a lot to lose by getting involved with another man, no matter how incredibly hot he is. Some readers didn’t like the premise, but other reviewers wrote that they couldn’t put the book down. Nobody said high stakes were pretty. They shouldn’t be.
I was thinking about this last weekend after watching the movie Two Days, One Night. It’s a French drama written and directed by the Dardenne brothers. Sandra, the heroine, has the weekend to convince her co-workers to give up their bonus so their company won’t lay her off.
There are some inherent stakes already built into this premise. We learn that Sandra and her husband have escaped public housing thanks to her job. If she gets fired, they’ll have to go back. Still, it’s not like they’ll be out on the street.
But the Dardenne brothers raise the stakes even higher. Sandra has missed a lot of work because she suffers from depression. (That’s the unspoken reason the company wants to get rid of her.) She’s recovering, but still on shaky ground. If she loses her job, it could push her over the edge.
But wait, as the telemarketers say, there’s more. Sandra now has to talk to each of her co-workers and convince them to vote on Monday to give up their bonuses. Some of them say they’re in financial situations as bad as hers. Others just won’t give up their money to help what they consider to be a lazy co-worker.
Obviously, there’s a lot of drama in this simple situation, and yet there’s one more level of stakes built into the story. Sandra has to keep depression and despair at bay while reluctantly talking to sometimes hostile people. She pops Xanax constantly to get through this ordeal. She’s on the verge of losing not just her job, but her husband, her sanity, even her life. Now those are some high stakes!
You can see how, even in premise as simple as the one in Two Days, One Night, or in a romance novel, there are many ways to raise the stakes organically, without resorting to mob hitmen, natural disasters, or terminal illnesses.
It’s something to think about when you’re outlining your next romance novel.