Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Exercise: Raise the Stakes

Total writing time: 22 minutes

A few days ago, I posted an exercise in stakes and goals. Today in our Tuesday class in Croton we followed up on those with a few more very short in-class exercises.

For these you'll need to have a story in mind, and to have some ideas about what the stakes and goals are in that story.

In the the first Stakes post, I talked about Cheever's "The Country Husband" and how the question of stakes in it is complex. This doesn't mean, though, that they are low or vague or that the story lacks drama. For example, the thing Francis Weed believes will make him happy is sex with an underage woman who most likely doesn't want him, and who is engaged to someone else. He wants it so badly that he may be willing to rape her, and to sacrifice his family's happiness, his marriage, and all the comfort he has worked for. We catch a couple of glimpses of what exists outside that sphere of comfort: in the airplane scene and in the war memory scene. As one of my students pointed out, there's something dreamlike about this story. And by its dreamlike logic, what exists underneath and outside of the Weeds' sunny suburbs is a stormy, frightening chaos. That's what he risks tumbling into. So even though this is literary fiction about a midlife crisis and not, say, a detective thriller, there are still high, clear, dramatic stakes.

With that in mind:

Set your timer for two minutes. You know what the stakes are in your own story. Now brainstorm about how you could raise them. How could you make the outcome better if your character "wins," and worse if she doesn't?

Set your timer for three minutes. Write a fragment of a scene in which your character has lost what was at stake. The worst has come to pass.

Three minutes. Write another scene fragment as above, but make it even worse.

Three minutes. Write a scene fragment in which your character has gained what was at stake. The best has come to pass. This could be a real scenario, or it could be the character's beautiful, unrealistic dream of gaining everything he desires.

Three minutes. Write another fragment as above, but make it even better.

Two minutes. Brainstorm on this question: Is there a point in the middle of your story when the stakes are raised? Can there be? What are the stakes at the beginning vs. at the end? Raising the stakes in the middle is an idea from screenwriting; see here, for example.

One minute: What is the main obstacle that stands in the way of your character achieving his goal?

Five minutes: Write a dialogue between your character and this obstacle, whether the obstacle is a person, an external force (in which case your character may be the only one talking), or something inside himself.

Felix Vallotton, The Trench, 1916

No comments:

Post a Comment