Thursday, March 5, 2015

Stakes and Goals: An Exercise

(Total writing time: 30 minutes)

Recently in my Tuesday class in Croton, we talked about John Cheever's "The Country Husband." If you haven't read this incredible story of midcentury middle-class midlife crisis, I highly recommend it.

In particular, we looked at the question of stakes in the story. In the very beginning, when the main character is on the plane, they're life or death. Later, what's at stake is not life itself but a way of life: His social standing, marriage and family stability on the one hand; and some kind of wild (likely imaginary) happiness with the babysitter on the other. Those things can't co-exist, he believes, so he must give up one of them.

(A side question: Are the satisfactions of his family life possibly as imaginary as the happiness he thinks he'd feel with the babysitter?)

As you can see, the issue of stakes here is complex. This story is not, e.g., a thriller about catching a serial murderer before he kills his next victim, who's going to be YOUR OWN KID. (That would be an example of simple, high, escalating stakes.) The main character here wants to be happy, but what will that mean for him? Has he got it right by the end of the story?

If you're a writer of literary fiction and not of straight-up suspense novels or action movies, that's how it's going to be: complex. There are many paths by which we find our way into a story, and not all of them include an obvious answer to those questions-- just as those things are not always clear to us in real life.

And yet they're important for us to address as writers. Frank Conroy, late head of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, used to call that the "So what?" question. It was one of the first things he'd ask about any story.

The answer to the "So what?" question is often something you have to write your way into. It's there, but you have to dig into your story and your character to find it. You do have to try to find it, because a story from which it's absent can feel weak, aimless, unfocused. You can lose the reader. Once you do find it, it often pulls the story together in a powerful way. And when the answer is one that's sprung organically from your story and characters, rather than one you imposed at the start, that's especially powerful.

The idea of stakes is closely related to the idea of goals, but it's not exactly the same. As in gambling, what's at stake is what your character stands to gain or lose. The goal is whatever will constitute winning the game. So what's at stake might be her kid's life and safety; her goal is to catch the killer. If she catches him, she wins and gains her kid's life. If she doesn't, she loses and forfeits her kid's life.

What about the Cheever story? One of Francis Weed's goals is, to put it bluntly, to have sex with Anne, the babysitter. (I could say something like "have an affair," but that wouldn't be accurate, since his idea of fulfillment doesn't seem to include her consent.) If he gains this goal, he thinks might gain some kind of happiness, "something like the sound of music." If he doesn't, he's left sobbing on the steering wheel. So one of the things at stake is his happiness.

The exercise:

1. Think of a story you're working on now. (It doesn't matter whether you've written a whole draft, or have only come up with a sketch of an idea so far-- I know you have something!)
     Set your timer for two minutes.
Brainstorm about what the stakes are in your story. Remember, that's not the same as the goal. It's what stands to be gained or lost, depending on whether the character achieves her goal.

2. Set your timer for two minutes. What is the goal that must be achieved? What would constitute achieving it, or "winning?" What would constitute losing?

3. Set your timer for two minutes. Usually, the main character doesn't travel a straight, unobstructed path to her goal. Often, in fact, she arrives somewhere else instead. Does this happen to your character? How?

4. Set your timer for two minutes. Choose a single scene in your story that feels mooshy, aimless, stagnant, or unfocused.

5. Set your timer for two minutes. In this particular scene, what's at stake, and what is the character's goal? How does it relate to the character's larger goal?

6. Rewrite your scene. If you need a time limit, give yourself twenty minutes.

Here's another exercise in stakes and goals. 

Cover of the issue of The New Yorker in which "The Country Husband" first appeared: November 20, 1954

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