From The Bookshelf Muse’s blog (14 December 2009):

The Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing

In my mind, there are seven big things that can undermine a novel. I want to address them all, but to avoid having a post 8 miles long, I’ll break them up so they each have their own real estate. Today let’s look at the first sin on the list!

Sin#1: Low Stakes

Stakes are paramount in a novel – they force your character to act. High personal stakes create strong conflict because each choice or action will carry a hefty price. Low stakes lead to mediocre conflict and a risk that the reader will not care about the outcome.

Often low stakes can be attributed to two things:

1) The storyline lacks adequate conflict

Conflict is the key to holding the reader’s attention and the driving force behind forward story movement and character investment. Pushing your character to clash with the forces against him or her is what gets the blood pumping – this is conflict! By infusing your story with scenes where characters experience heightened emotion and face powerful obstacles you not only create high stakes in your novel, you also raise them for the reader. Pages turn because your audience is drawn into the action, compelled to find out what happens next.

2) The writer doesn’t push the characters hard enough

Sometimes the stakes are high, the consequences dire, the action bursting off the page … and the character does not rise to the challenge. While indecision is often a large part of any thought process when facing difficult choices, it cannot overrun the character’s actions. At some point, the character MUST COMMIT to a chosen course and put their all into it.

Other times, the writer sabotages the story because they care too much about a character to shove them in harm’s way or force them to do the dirty work. If circumstances or another character always swoop in and save the day, the stakes flatline. CHARACTERS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. Never hesitate to throw them into the path of a bus. Only then can we really see what they are made of.

Can you think of other ways low stakes ruin a novel? Have you ever cared about a character so much you struggled to force them to face their fears?

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