Monday, October 19, 2015

How to give your story tension (Story Breakdown, Part 1)

A post by Mary Fan
What keeps a story moving forward? What gives it that pull that makes a reader keep turning the
pages?

Answer: Tension. Those little hooks in a novel that give you the urge to find out what happens next. We are hardwired to want answers to questions, and stories with tension are imbedded with them, without offering the answers until the very end.

There are the big, overarching questions: "Will the good guys defeat the bad guys?" "Will the heroine end up with her Prince Charming?" "Will the protagonist choose what's best for herself, or what's best for her community?"

And the more specific ones, surrounding how the plot unfurls, along the way: "How will the good guys escape the dungeon?" "What will happen when the heroine learns that her Prince Charming lied about his identity, and will they be able to recover?" "How will the protagonist arrive at her decision about whether to choose herself over the greater good, and whose influence will she listen to?"

The three example questions I gave above each represent one of three types of stakes: Physical (external), Emotional (internal), and Moral (philosophical). Stakes are the reason a person is reading a story. Something will be gained or lost based on the outcome of the book, and readers read to find out how it will all turn out.

Physical (External) Stakes




Physical stakes are about achieving goals. These are the external circumstances a character must face and overcome. When people think of stakes, usually it's the physical ones, and genre books (thrillers, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc.) thrive on upping them to life and death situations. But even less "save the world" type books have physical stakes. For instance, contemporary fiction often includes story lines around surviving in modern society--having enough money for the mortgage or winning a prestigious contest, for instance.

Types of physical stakes include:

  • Survival (of either the individual or a community)
  • Competition (sometimes a particular contest, like an election, or sometimes for general status/position) 
  • Money
Here are some examples of physical stakes:
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson: Lisbeth and Mikael must discover the identity of a ruthless murderer before he kills again.
  • Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson: David seeks to defeat Steelheart, a supervillain with extraordinary powers who rules over a post-apocalyptic Chicago.
  • A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar John Nash battles schizophrenia on his way toward becoming a great academic.
  • Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan: Percy goes on a quest to the Underworld to prevent a war between the Greek gods.
  • Braineater Jones by Stephen Kozeniewski: After waking up a zombie, Braineater Jones must solve his own murder and finds himself at the heart of a much bigger conflict.
Emotional (Internal) Stakes


Emotional stakes are about a character's internal conflicts. In other words, the "feels." Romance novels are all about these emotional stakes. A lot of women's fiction and memoirs center around emotional stakes as well. But even bang-bang-kaboom-type books have emotional stakes... The farmboy who loses his family and sets himself on a dubious path to greatness, the cynical cop struggling to keep her marriage together while hunting a serial killer.

Types of emotional stakes include:
  • Love (romantic or familial)
  • Friendship
  • Sense of self (for example, overcoming self-doubt or existential crises)
Here are some examples of emotional stakes:
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: Orphaned and treated like garbage by his aunt's family, Harry discovers a new community of friends and faces a Chosen One destiny he's unprepared for.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Two teenagers battling cancer find love and comfort in their shared experiences.
  • Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline: After losing her family, Vivian is sent West to be placed with an adoptive family and must hold on to her sense of self as she's shuffled from home to home.
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell: Left completely isolated after being left behind on her tribe's island, Karana finds meaning and companionship in nature.
  • Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano: When the boy Lainey loves returns from the grave as a ghost, Lainey struggles with her feelings for someone she can never touch again.
Moral (Philosophical) Stakes



Moral stakes are about "doing the right thing," even when it comes at a cost for the characters. They're about what separate the bad guys from the good guys: What makes the good guys "good," and why are we rooting for them? Good guys and bad guys are obvious in a lot of genre fiction (plucky rebels vs. evil overlords, scrappy cops vs. depraved criminals, etc.). Sometimes, though, the moral stakes go beyond the obvious. 

Types of moral stakes include:
  • Individual vs. community
  • Freedom vs. control
  • Rules vs. what feels right
  • Self vs. other
  • Doing what's easy vs. doing what's right
Here are some examples of moral stakes:
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: A group of students stage a foolhardy rebellion against overwhelming odds, and Jean Valjean joins them, sacrificing his own safety by entering a can't-win battle, in order to save his daughter's lover.
  • Number the Stars by Lois Lowry: Deep in the shadow of World War II, a Danish family risks everything to help smuggle their Jewish friends to safety.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Forced into a dystopian kill-or-be-killed competition, Katniss protects her friends even though their survival could mean her death.
  • Green Angel by Alice Hoffman: After losing her family, Green must learn to let go of her bitterness and accept her sorrow.
  • Oracle of Philadelphia by Elizabeth Corrigan: After meeting a good man who sold his soul to save his sister, the Oracle must decide what lengths she's willing to go to in order to save him.
Combining the three types of stakes

Most books will have some combination of the three types of stakes--or all of them--and most also have more than one of each kind. As you may have noticed, the examples above only talk about one small slice of the books they're from (for instance, Hunger Games, mentioned under Moral, also has obvious physical stakes).

Here are a few examples of books broken down by their stakes:

  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
    • Physical stakes
      • Get the One Ring to Mordor and destroy it
      • Fight back armies of Orcs to protect the people
      • Defeat adversaries along the way (Shelob, Balrog, Ring Wraiths, etc.)
      • Restore order to the realm of Man
    • Emotional stakes
      • Call to greatness--Ordinary vs. extraordinary life (Frodo, a humble Hobbit, sets off on a destiny he's unprepared for when he becomes the Ring Bearer and faces self-doubt along the way)
      • Fulfilling a destiny (After hiding from his destiny for years, Aragorn rises up as the true king of Gondor)
      • Friendship--Loyalty vs. betrayal (Frodo and Sam's tension as the Ring starts corrupting Frodo)
    • Moral stakes
      • Selfishness vs. altruism (Frodo struggles with whether to fulfill his mission or keep the One Ring for himself; Aragorn chooses to help the kingdom of Rohan fight back the Orcs; Theoden, king of Rohan, sends his armies to aid Gondor even though Gondor didn't help Rohan previously)
      • What's right vs. what's easy (Frodo sets off to destroy the Ring knowing how dangerous it will be)
      • Power vs. freedom (Sauron desires control over Middle Earth and power for himself, while the heroes fight to keep Middle Earth free from his control)

  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
    • Physical stakes
      • Cross the ocean in a lifeboat
      • Keep the tiger fed so he won't eat Pi
    • Emotional stakes
      • Faith vs. doubt--Pi wrestles with his belief in God
      • After losing his family, Pi's only companion on his journey is the tiger
    • Moral stakes
      • Determination vs. giving up--As days drag on and there's no rescue in sight, Pi struggles to keep going even though his fate seems grim
      • How far is Pi willing to go to survive? Will he kill the tiger to save himself?

  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
    • Physical stakes
      • Survive the Civil War
      • Save the family plantation
      • Rebuild life after the war tears it apart
    • Emotional stakes
      • Romantic love: Scarlet is in love with Ashley, a married man, while engaging in a tumultuous romance with the roguish Rhett
      • Familial love: Scarlet takes care of her father and two sisters after her mother's death
      • Call to greatness: Scarlet must take charge after her mother's death drives her father to madness, overcoming her upbringing as a decorative Southern belle
    • Moral stakes
      • Selfishness vs. altruism: Scarlet protects Melanie even though she's married to the man Scarlet loves, and Melanie's death would mean that he's available
      • Determination vs. giving up: Scarlet goes to great lengths to protect the family plantation while others in her situation accept defeat
      • Holding true vs. selling out: Scarlet fails on this one because she chooses to do business with morally dubious individuals, including those who would have been her enemies during the war
Keeping these three types of stakes in mind while plotting your novel will help you craft the kind of story that keeps readers reading. Knowing what's at stake--what's to be gained and what's could be lost--is what keeps us wanting to know how things turn out.

Just for fun, I've done a breakdown of my own book, Artificial Absolutes:
  • Physical stakes
    • Jane must find her friend, Adam, after witnessing his kidnapping
    • Jane must prove her brother's innocence after he's framed for shooting their father
    • Jane has to escape various adversaries who pursue her across the galaxy (she's a fugitive from the law and also the target of a powerful criminal)
  • Emotional stakes
    • Familial love: Jane's loyalty to her brother and desire to see her father's attacker brought to justice
    • Romantic love: Jane and Adam's budding relationship
    • Call to greatness: Jane doubts her ability to save the day as she faces circumstances she could never have prepared for
  • Moral stakes
    • Selfishness vs. altruism: Though Jane herself isn't the villain's target, she chooses to leave her own life behind to save her brother and Adam
    • Determination vs. giving up: When all seems lost, Jane must decide how far she's willing to go
    • Freedom vs. control: The enemy Jane faces desires control over the fate of humanity in order to instill order
This is Part 1 of my Story Breakdown series of posts... Tune in next month for Part 2, which will be about how to keep the pages turning.

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