Saturday, 14 March 2015

What Pressing Buttons and #PitMad Taught Me About Stakes

And the winner of my birthday giveaway is ... Appletaile! Congratulations; reply to my email with your mailing address and which book you'd like! Everyone else, thank you so much for participating. We had over 300 entries, and your enthusiasm totally made my (birth)day!

Moving on! #PitMad happened on March 11 just the other day, and before that I was pretty much stalking Ava Jae's critique forum. It was so incredibly reading other people's pitches and critiques, and suddenly I had writing thoughts.

But of course you're more interested in pressing buttons, because is it a self-destruct button? Does it give you infinite sodium and takeout? Sadly, no.
WillYouPressTheButton?, #PitMad, and stakes
Edited from Death to the Stock Photo.
WillYouPressTheButton?.com is a site that gives you an imaginary amazing thing, but at the cost of other imaginary horrible thing. You get to press a big red button and accept this deal, or say "I will not!" and keep your integrity.

Sometimes, though, the choices end up like this.
That, dear readers, is not a bad thing. Not even if you just finished watching all the singing of Les Mis and do not want to hear singing ever again.

In a nutshell, stakes are the consequences of the MC's choice and actions; in other words, what they stand to lose if they fail to overcome the opposition. (For more details, here's, like, the most detailed pitch writing guide ever by Jami Gold.) One of the formulae for a pitch is "Character must [goal] or [consequences]."

After reading far too many pitches on Ava's critique forum than is healthy, I realised that the stakes were often not really stakes. I'll be honest, I'm guilty of this myself really often. So I decided to blog about my takeaway from this #PitMad as both a reminder to my future self and a way of keeping myself accountable. Anyways, examples of not-really stakes I often saw:
  • The MC must give up a personal desire, or the world will be destroyed. (The MC's the good guy, right?)
  • These two people who don't like each other must team up or die. (Most people want to live, even if they have to endure an insufferable person like me.)
  • The MC must do this difficult thing; the fate of the world rests upon it. (Chances are, it will happen. Even if you have a downer ending, you can't say that in the pitch!)
(And the other day, Ava followed up her critique forum with an amazing post on why stakes need to be personal. So check that out for things to do instead of things not to do.)

I then discovered a really simple way to figure out if the stakes are effective. Use the WillYouPressTheButton idea and ask yourself, "The hero succeeds", BUT "this is the opposition." Do I press this button? If the answer is "That choice sucks" or "Argh, I don't knowwww", you are on the right track.

In fact, don't just start using this in the pitch or query. In my first ever ms, I didn't realise it had no clearly defined stakes until after I'd finished work on it. I simply couldn't figure out a good query or pitch, because the stakes weren't in the novel.

So start thinking about your big red button as you plan and put pen to the paper. Some people even write the query before they write the novel. Whatever works best, this red button is important — in all likelihood, it's part of the internal or even external conflict.

What are your thoughts on stakes? Did you join #PitMad? The comments are all yours!


Share this post to save the world, but you have to press a button:
  • A simple way to test stakes: Will you press the button? (Click to Tweet)
  • WillYouPressTheButton?.com taught @AlyssaC_HK how to write stakes. (Click to Tweet)

12 comments:

  1. Oooh, this is a good one, especially because I myself have such a hard time with stakes. It's not that I don't get what they are, but it physically pains me to have to give characters stakes with a real impact. D: And it is hard because I don't want to but I must, and so pretty much my writing struggle is giving everybody stakes and making the stakes have consequences. And I'm pretty good at thinking of stakes but I hate consequences. *sigh*

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    1. *whispers* I actually do too. Thank goodness we have each other as CPs. My real problem is forgetting that they matter until I've finished it and am trying to sum it up -- then realising there's no reason why the characters are doing what they're doing. I'm okay with thinking of consequences, but the characters don't realise there are consequences until two-thirds into the book. :S

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  2. The stakes of a book should always be linked back to how the character behaviours. Like, if you character doesn't care about anybody, he or she isn't going to try saving the world or whatever. The stakes have to matter to the character- something that isn't always done properly.

    But it's hard to write stakes, because your characters are your babies and no one should ever touch them! The struggle is real xD

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    1. Mmmm, yes. That's why stakes are often very personal -- I mean, few people are going to be all "I'm saving the woooorld~" if a distant country is bombing another distant country, but most people would do SOMETHING if their own town is being ransacked. So totally agree on stakes having to matter to the character.

      (Truth be told, the characters that are my absolute babies are the ones who I torture most. I am all sadistic towards them until I hurt them, y'know? It's weird.)

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  3. Gah! I forgot to leave a comment before but THIS IS A GREAT POST! Stakes are something I struggle with CONSTANTLY in my writing, especially making them high enough to be effective. This post was really helpful. Thanks a lot!

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    1. THANK YOU. I struggle with it too, and I learned SO MUCH from Ava's critique forum I felt I HAD to share my takeaway (or takeout :P) on the blog. Besides, I can now keep myself accountable :) You're very welcome, Alex!

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  4. Great post! I loved reading Ava's critiques,they had me scrolling for a long time! I enjoyed your take on stakes as well! I haven't joined #PitMad yet, I want to someday when feel I'm ready to be critiqued. It is not this day though!

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    1. *whispers* I spent so much time stalking the forum I abandoned my homework. But hey, it was really fun. #PitMad occurs like four times a year, so plenty of time to get prepared and so on.

      *Syrio Forel pose* Not today.

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  5. Such a good post! I hadn't thought about the stakes vs. no-stakes "stakes" situation before--good thing to keep in mind as I'm writing this week :)

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    1. Thanks, Martha! It was really a combination of learning from my own mistakes and others' mistakes as I tries to figure out why my pitches, etc. fell flat.

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  6. Ohh, this is a GOOD post! I have never thought of it like this but wow- you are SO right. Oh my goodness, this is absolute gold. I shall be adding it to my collection of fantastic writing advice posts! Also, I will now be spending the next 7-9 hours pressing buttons. So thanks for THAT ;)

    Shannon @ It Starts At Midnight

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    1. Thanks! It never occurred to me think of it this way, until I looked in my Twitter field and there was the non-challenging button and right next to it a #PitMad tweet -- absolutely perfect! (And yes, it can be quite addictive. Apologies XD)

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