The Importance of Raising the Stakes in Your Story

I’ve been reading a lot of independently published romance lately. I’ve noticed a common problem – not much happens in too many of these novels. That’s not to say nothing happens. Girl meets hot guy, they get together, something keeps them apart, but they end up living happily ever after. The problem is, there’s seldom much at stake for the hero or heroine. If she doesn’t land the guy she may cry a little, but she’ll be fine. Instead of these books keeping me on the edge of my seat, they make me nod off.

Stakes are all about your main character having a goal, and what she has to lose if she doesn’t achieve it. In romance, that goal always includes a guy. (Or sometimes another girl.) If the main character doesn’t have a goal, whether it’s getting laid, getting married, or saving the family farm, the reader has little reason to stick around and see what happens. And if there’s nothing standing in the heroes way, then scenes become about as exciting as figuring out what to make for dinner.

Stakes are relative. Your heroine doesn’t have to save the world from an incoming asteroid to make for dramatic reading. Marty, the classic 1955 film (based on the 1953 teleplay) is a perfect example of this. Marty meets Clara one night at a dance. He likes her. She gives him her number. But when his mother and friends object to her, he decides not to call her.

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Imagine if Marty was your typical romance hero. He’s good looking, with smoldering eyes, a confident swagger, and an interesting job. If he doesn’t call Clara, it’s no big deal. We know it won’t take long for him to find another girl.

But Marty is the complete opposite. He’s a butcher, not very attractive, and at 34, likely to be a bachelor for the rest of his life. The stakes for Marty are very high. We want to jump out of our seats and thrust the phone in his hand. We want to tell him he’s found a kind, sweet, wonderful girl, and he better not louse things up. It’s a simple story, but it’s great drama. That’s why it won four Academy Awards.

Try this. When you’re rewriting your novel, look at what your hero has at stake. Then sit down and write 25 alternative possibilities for what she might risk if she doesn’t achieve her goal. You might find a gem in there that will elevate your novel from so-so to something readers can’t put down. Don’t be afraid to go all-in. You won’t regret it.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Using Character Growth to Add Depth to Your Novel

Character growth is one of the most powerful tools you can use to hook your readers, deepen your characters, and add drama to your narrative. Almost everybody wants to change something about his/her character, whether it’s to be more generous, or mindful, or to stop gambling compulsively. But it’s a very difficult thing to do given the relative immutability of our personalities. Seeing a fictional character change makes us feel hopeful about our own lives, and gives us a character we can root for, even if it’s someone we wouldn’t want to be friends with in real life.

Not long ago I saw the movie Dallas Buyers Club. It tells the story of Ron Woodroof, a Texas rodeo cowboy and small-time drug dealer who contracts HIV. Ron has a certain charm, but overall he’s a dislikable character, until he goes through a great deal of growth following his diagnosis. The way the movie portrays that change offers a wonderful example of how to approach character growth in your own story. Here are some of the key lessons.

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Give your character a long road to travel. At the beginning of Dallas Buyers Club, Ron is as macho and homophobic as they come. He rides bulls, he and his buddies make gay slurs, and he sees women as only good for sex. After his diagnosis, he’s forced to interact with gay characters who also have HIV. He’s repulsed by them and won’t even shake their hands. His personality flaws seem insurmountable, which heightens the drama as he’s forced to change in order to survive.

Character growth takes time. A Christmas Carol is a beloved classic, but Scrooge’s overnight transformation from selfish miser to generous benefactor doesn’t happen in the real world. Ron takes a long time to accept that he needs LGBT persons, for economic self-survival and as friends so he’s not completely isolated by his disease. It’s a struggle for him, and it keeps us glued to our seats as we watch him slowly see them as human beings. Which leads us to…

Your hero should be dragged kicking and screaming towards character growth. Changing our character is painful. Even if we want to do it, the process is long and difficult, with many setbacks. Ron has no desire to change. He begins interacting with LGBT persons so he can sell anti-HIV drugs. He is forced to bring on Rayon, a drug addicted, HIV positive, trans woman because he needs a partner whom the gay community trusts. It takes much longer for Ron to accept Rayon and other LGBT persons as friends, people he cares about it a way he never could with his macho buddies.

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Offer clear signs that a character is changing. There are many of these in Dallas Buyers Club. One of the most memorable for me is when Ron first turns away two gay men who don’t have enough money to buy into the club. But he becomes increasingly concerned with helping people instead of just making money. We see this when the two men return. This time he tells his assistant to give them the drugs for free.

Character Transformation Should Never Be Complete. I believe we all can change, but we will never turn into completely different people. The same should hold true for your hero. While Ron goes through a remarkable transformation, we still feel like his old character traits are there. In the dramatic courtroom scene at the end, he argues for the legal right to take Peptide T. Yes, he wants all AIDS patients to have access to the drug, but we also recognize that he has a strong motivation in getting it and selling it himself. At the end of the movie, Ron has overcome many of his character traits, but they haven’t entirely disappeared. We know they will stay with him through the rest of his short life.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you when you’re developing your next hero or heroine. Good luck and remember, anybody can change.

Best wishes,

Kelee

 

The Importance of Setting in Your Scenes

I recently saw the very funny and imaginative Israeli movie Footnote, about the rivalry between father and son academics. There’s a wonderful scene where the son is called to a meeting of the awards committee for the Israel Prize, the highest honor in the country. Uriel is told that his father was mistakenly (or perhaps intentionally) told he would receive the prize. Instead, the prize is going to son, not father.

It’s a dramatic scene, and one that could have been set in many locations: a large conference room, the auditorium where the ceremony will eventually be held, or perhaps in Uriel’s or someone else’s home. But the filmmakers chose to set the scene in what appears to be a small research room, where the committee is crammed around the table. Uriel has to bring in a large office chair from another room just to sit, which makes it even more crowded.

The result is comic; when Uriel wants to go into the hallway to absorb the information, there’s a struggle to move chairs and people before he can leave. The same occurs when the committee chairman angrily tries to walk out of the meeting.

But the setting also makes the scene more dramatic. Uriel is nose-to-nose with the committee members, raising the tension. When the committee chair bolts, he has to squeeze by Uriel, which ends up in a physical confrontation.

Would this scene be as effective on the page? Probably not. But it did make me think about the important of choosing where I set each scene in my novel. My first instinct is to go with the obvious choice: a sex scene in a bedroom, a romantic dinner scene in the dining room or at a restaurant, two people falling in love while enjoying a pastoral landscape. But it’s important to think outside the box and consider how the dynamics of a scene would change in another location. What if the two lovers had sex on a dining room table set for an elaborate dinner? Or the romanic dinner was served on a picnic blanket while surrounded by a litter of doberman puppies? Or the couple fell in love while waiting in an interminable line at the DMV?

All these ideas are comic, but there are many other settings that would give very different dynamics to the scene. All of them sound much more fun to write, and to read, than the cliche choices.

Think about this next time you’re setting your scene. It might just fire your imagination.

Happy writing!

Kelee

Writing in the First Person

When I was a screenwriter, I had no choice but to write in the third person. It’s hard to imagine how one would do anything else. Movies almost always work best as third person experiences.  (Watch the 1947 Robert Montgomery movie Lady in the Lake, which was shot entirely from Phillip Marlowe’s point-of-view, and you’ll see why.)

When I started writing Goddess, my first romance novel, I was excited by the chance to write in the first person. I found in liberating. It was like sitting around a campfire, sharing a story that happened to me personally. I was able to live the story moment by moment as Julia Nelson slowly but inevitably falls for the hot, enigmatic archeologist Ashland Stewart. it was almost as if I was in bed with him, experiencing every touch, every sensation. It made writing an erotic romance seem easy… and exciting.

But I also learned the pitfalls of the first person perspective.

Writing a romance novel in the first person isn’t a popular choice for a reason. A romance is about two people. (Unless it’s autoerotic, which might be interesting.) When we’re first getting to know someone romantically, there’s often a lot of guesswork involved in figuring out the other person’s intentions and nature. But in third person fiction, the reader can be inside both characters’ heads. We can know what that hot guy is thinking. Of course, that does take some of the suspense out of the narrative, but it helps us understand him more.

One of the criticisms I heard about my early drafts of Goddess was that Ashland wasn’t as well developed as Julia, my point-of-view character. This made complete sense. We knew everything Julia was feeling and thinking. We didn’t have that same luxury with Ashland. It took a lot of rewriting to make Ashland more three-dimensional. But I knew he could never be as fully developed as his lover. That’s just one of the compromises a writer has to make when writing in the first person.

My training as a screenwriter did help me avoid one of the pitfalls new writers often fall into when writing in the first person. In a script, a writer shouldn’t put information on the page that the audience watching the finished movie couldn’t possibly know. A screenwriter has to portray a character’s inner thoughts and feelings through outward action and dialogue. Otherwise, it’s considered cheating and is frowned on by script readers.

Too many new writers working in the first person also try to cheat when conveying information they want the reader to know. One of the most popular (and most cliche) way is through the overheard conversation. (Or, in the age of cellphones, the stumbled upon text or voicemail message.)

The other pit writers fall into is getting stuck in their main character’s head. The story becomes a constant recitation of her thoughts and feelings. It’s enough to give the reader a splitting headache.

When writing in the first person, it’s important to remain grounded in time and space. What can your character see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? After all, while we may constantly have thoughts swirling around in our brains, we’re also are focused on the world around us. (Unless you’re a narcissist!)

If you’ve never written in the first person, I would suggest giving it a try. It may just change your own perspective on your story, and on your writing.

Best wishes,

Kelee

Luck and the Successful Writer

In the early 2000s, writer Doug Aitchison was struggling to get his screenplay Akeelah and the Bee produced. It had already won a prestigious Nichol Fellowship in Screenwriting. Producer Sid Ganis discovered it thanks to that award, but he was having little luck in getting studio interest or funding. After all, this was a story about a spelling bee starring a young African American girl – not what you’d call big budget Hollywood entertainment!

 

Gains did manage to get the script to Lawrence Fishburne through his agent, but he heard nothing back. Fishburne likely had dozens of script piled on his desk, and he had no reason to read one from a writer with no track record.

But then, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, luck was a lady to Doug Aitchison. One day, he was walking his dog in the Hollywood Hills when he saw a familiar face approaching – Lawrence Fishburne, who was walking his own dogs. Aitchison knew this was his moment.

Writer Julia Cameron writes, “I don’t believe in luck. I do believe in synchronicity.” She goes on, “Luck is passive. We trigger synchronicity. We trigger it through risk.” Aitchison took the risk of approaching a major star he had never met before. He politely introduced himself. Fishburne remembered Akeelah and the Bee, and promised to take a closer look at it. He ended up producing and starring in it.

Every writer has luck or synchronicity. Sometimes risk pays off, many times it doesn’t. You send out 50 query letters and one agent asks for your pages. Partly it’s because you wrote a good letter, but you may have also contacted her on a good day with just the kind of story she liked.

If your hobby is skydiving, the consequences of taking a risk may be bad. But if you’re well trained and prepared, the chances of success are much better. If you’re a writer, there’s seldom a serious downside to stepping out of your comfort zone and taking a risk. Perhaps you’ll be walking your dog and meet the person who makes you career take off. If you’ve prepared, if the manuscript in your hand is damned good, you’ve increased your odds that synchronicity will turn into success. Luck my just be a lady tonight.

Try it. What do you have to lose?

Best wishes,

Kelee

Using Foreshadowing in Your Writing

I’ve been reading Anthony Doerr’s wonderful novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I could say so many things about its powerful story and evocative prose, but the first thing I thought of is how he uses foreshadowing to build tension in the story.

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What is Foreshadowing?

Foreshadowing is something introduced in the first part of a story – an object, a line of dialogue, even a characteristic – that only reveals its significance much later on. Foreshadowing shouldn’t be obvious. If a character says at the beginning of the book, “I’m going to kill John.” and then does kill him later, that’s not foreshadowing.

Here’s a very simple if crude example: At the beginning of a story, we’re introduced to a single mom who has two young children she’s raising. One of the children finds a trophy buried in the back of the closet. The mom admits that at one time she was training to be a champion marital arts fighter, but she gave it up when she got pregnant by a man who’s no longer around. At this point it’s just an interesting bit of character background. It has no significance in the story. Perhaps one other time in the book it’s brought up. (Foreshadowing usually works best if we see it a couple of times before the payoff.) Maybe one of the kids is frustrated because he can’t find a saw to cut a board, so the mom breaks it in two with a wicked karate chop. (I told you this was a crude example.)

The real story kicks off when the mom witnesses a murder. Now hired killers are out to get her. She’ll protect her children at any cost. The killers break into her house and threaten her kids. She summons everything she knows about martial arts to kick their asses. Hooray!

What if there was no foreshadowing in that story? What if the mother just suddenly started beating up these tough guys? We would think it was ridiculous and probably give the book a swift kick into the trash. Foreshadowing helps make the impossible possible.

Foreshadowing in All the Light We Cannot See

Now for a much better example. (And if you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to rush out and do that now, because this will contain minor spoilers.) Near the beginning of the novel, Doerr introduces us to a Nazi treasure-hunter, Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel. He’s on the hunt for a magnificent gem, the Sea of Flames. Most evil Nazis are portrayed as brutes who use violence because they’re impatient to get what they want. But van Rumpel is the complete opposite. He gets the French museum director to reveal what happened to the gem by using extreme patience. He makes the director wait for hours with him in his office until the director can’t stand it anymore and breaks. It’s a brilliant, vivid way to turn what could have been a stock villain into a unique, memorable character.

But it’s not until the climax of the book that this foreshadowing pays off. Marie-Laure, a young, blind girl is the heroine of the book. Her father worked at the museum, and he’s the one who kept the Sea of Flames for safekeeping. After he and all the adults in her life are either dead or arrested, she is left alone in a large house with the gem.  She has a very clever hiding place for herself and the stone, created by her uncle. No ordinary person would be able to find it. But as we’ve seen, thanks to foreshadowing, that van Rumpel is no ordinary villain. He doesn’t know that she’s in the house, but he’s patient enough to continue his search long after others would have given up. Marie-Laure is running out of food and water. The situation seems hopeless for her. We know all about his patience, but Marie-Laure doesn’t. The tension is excruciating, thanks to foreshadowing.

How Not to Use Foreshadowing

If you’ve ever seen M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs, then God help you. But it is an excellent example of foreshadowing overkill. Mel Gibson’s family is introduced at the beginning of the movie. His son has asthma and his daughter has a strange habit of leaving unfinished glasses of water around the house. Meanwhile, his brother is a former baseball player who couldn’t make it in the majors because he swung at too many pitches.

Other than the fact that the family is struggling none of this is significant until aliens invade. They spray a deadly gas. Nothing can stop them. Finally, they break into Gibson’s house. How will the family survive? Well, the son happens to have an asthma attack just as he’s sprayed with the deadly gas, so he can’t breath it in. Meanwhile, it turns out water is deadly to the aliens, so all those glasses of water become weapons. Finally, the brother who couldn’t stop swinging his bat uses it to kick alien ass.

When I first saw this movie I’m sure my jaw hung open in disbelief. Talk about foreshadowing overkill. The problem is, if you use foreshadowing too much, it backfires and becomes ridiculous and unbelievable. I could almost see Shyamalan rubbing his hands together, thinking how clever he was. Guess what? He wasn’t.

Use foreshadowing wisely and it can do wonders for your story. Good luck!

Best wishes,

Kelee