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

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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

 

Free Books Made Easier

I’ve written previously that I’m not a big fan of authors giving away their books, except under a few circumstances. It might feel good to see all those new potential readers, but I know from personal experience that I only rarely end up reading the free books I’ve downloaded.

However, for the times when it’s helpful to offer an ebook for free, Barnes and Noble has now made the process much simpler. I applaud them. Of course, the real issue is that Kindle, the biggest player in the game, still makes giving away your book a pain in the butt unless you choose to sell exclusively through them. I understand their rationale — they don’t make any money off free books. But in the long run, it may help some authors sell more books overall, which means more money for the beast called Amazon.

So come on, Amazon, give us a break. Make giving away our creative efforts a little easier.

Happy writing,

Kelee

Wading into the Cultural Appropriation Minefield

In case you haven’t been keeping up on news in the literary world, novelist Lionel Shriver was raked over the coals last week for defending cultural appropriation in her address to a Australian writers conference.

I can’t judge what she said. I wasn’t there and her speech hasn’t been posted by the conference. I only know what I read in the New York Times. I do think cultural appropriation should be taken seriously. Throughout history, minorities have been mostly powerless to stop the dominate culture from using their images and culture for art and entertainment. We have become more sensitive about the practice, but we still have a long way to go. While very few white people would show up at a party in black face, we still have a football team called the Redskins that fans fiercely defend in the name of “tradition.”

But those are relatively simple examples. When we look at how white writers use minority characters and cultures in their books, it becomes much more complicated.

I remember reading the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret of the Old Clock, to my daughter. I was curious to also read the original 1930 edition. The caretaker in that version is a drunken, comical African American. Readers back then were so familiar with the stereotype they probably didn’t think twice about it. The 1959 version changes the caretaker to a white man. There’s no more ethnic stereotype, but on the other hand, there’s no longer a minority character in the novel.

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Some cultural appropriation activists believe writers from the dominate culture should never portray people of color in their books. Their argument is that we can’t understand their experience and the nuances of their culture. We end up creating a dishonest or superficial portrait of them. There’s truth in this. We as writers need to thoroughly understand our characters’ worlds. Those worlds become more authentic when we “write what we know.” But it also means we turn our novels into a bland, safe paste that literally lacks color.

Even writing positive minority characters can be disrespectful. When I was a screenwriter, I don’t know how many scripts I read featuring a “Magical Negro” as Spike Lee dubbed the character — a wise black man or woman, sometimes with supernatural powers, who advises the main white character and helps him overcome his emotional obstacles. Morgan Freeman has practically made a career out of playing these characters!

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There are other issues to consider. Even someone from a minority culture doesn’t understand all aspects of it. Should there never be another Holocaust novel because how can any writer who hasn’t lived through that experience write about it authentically? Should an African American writer who grew up in an affluent community write about the inner city experience? It becomes very complicated!

So what do we as writers do? First of all, I think we need to look long and hard at all our characters and why they’re in our novel. Did we make a character black or Latino or Asian just to add diversity? That’s not enough. Characters need to be fully realized in the context of the story and their culture, whether they’re white, black, brown, or any color in-between.

I think it’s also important if you’re portraying aspects of a culture you’re not part of, whether it’s a Native American ritual or an inner city barrio, to talk to people who know it well. Have them read and react to your book. Listen to them.

We as writers need to push boundaries in our lives and writing. We need to write unafraid that we might provoke negative reactions. But we need to make sure we’ve done everything in our power to consider the impact of what we write, and how it affects readers of all backgrounds.

Happy writing,

Kelee

 

Transitions

I grew up in the midwest, however I lived in San Francisco for awhile. It’s a beautiful city and I enjoyed my time there. But one of my most vivid memories is when I returned to Chicago. I stepped off the train and was immediately overwhelmed by the rich smell decaying leaves, the cool, crisp air, and the cornucopia of fall colors. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I missed the change of seasons we experience here.

At the moment, it’s still hot and humid, but there’s already a subtle shift in the air as summer wanes and gives way to fall. The night air is a little cooler, and soon the first leaves will begin to change. This transition made me think about changes in my writing and reading life. It’s easy to fall into a pattern, writing in the same genre, following the same schedule, returning to the same characters and themes. Yes, it’s important to find our writing niche, but it’s also good to shake things up once in awhile. I did that when I switched from writing screenplays to writing romance novels. Now I feel it may soon be time to change course again, though perhaps not so radically.

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I think we need to shake things up as readers as well. If we tend to read romance, we need to pick up science fiction, a mystery, a literary novel, or perhaps a biography. It keeps our minds fresh and full of wonder, like the change of seasons.

What kind of transitions do you enjoy in your life? I’d love to hear.

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

Killing Your Babies

I loved the opening scene of the new romance novel I’m working on, Anywhere’s Better Than Here. It was funny, with great dialogue, intriguing characters, and page-turning thrills. Best of all, I’d given it what I thought was an interesting twist. We first see our heroine, Julina Trevers, through the eyes of her caddish ex-boyfriend. I was so proud of myself.

There was just one problem.

My first-round readers hated the scene.

If this was a Kindle sample, one wrote, I would never download itI was confused, wrote another. Who’s the protagonist? They went on: Too long. The boyfriend never reappears. Why focus so much on a dislikable character?

I wanted to rail, to tell them they didn’t know what they were talking about. They couldn’t see clever writing if it hit them over the head. But these were all experienced writers and readers, and it wasn’t just two or three of them who didn’t like the scene, as is usually the case. They all hated it equally.

I had invested so much time and energy into this opening. I couldn’t bare to throw it out. Instead, I put aside the manuscript and spent several weeks working on my other book-in-progress. Now I’ve returned to it, and it’s still painful to change, but I’m doing it.

Killing your babies (or darlings for the more sensitive among you) is such an apt metaphor for what a writer has to go through. We’ve birthed these characters, scenes, plot lines, and sometimes, whole books. It’s agony to have to take a butcher knife to them, to slash them apart and resemble them. Sometimes they end up in the compost heap like yesterday’s dinner.

But as writers, we have to remember, compost isn’t trash. It breaks down and becomes something lovely and new that will eventually nourish our creative garden. Those lines of dialogue or the great character we created may someday end up in another book, right where they belonged all the time.

Writers, feel the pain and agony of killing your babies, but remember, they will live again.

Happy writing,

Kelee