Global stakes. Personal stakes.
Good novels have both. Juicy stakes enhance characterization, fuel conflict, and keep elements like pace on track. But what I’ve recently realized is, the novels I love embed one stake in the other. And if you and I want readers to sink their teeth into our books, maybe we need to embed one stake, like the personal stake, within the other as well.
Pick a novel. Any novel.
Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon. William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress. Lisa Scottoline’s Dirty Blonde. Patricia Cornwell’s Body Farm. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Harlan Coben’s Long Lost. Their authors all know the trick of linking personal stakes to the global ones.
So let’s look at three novels. You’ll see what I mean. If you haven’t read the following books – SPOILER ALERT – consider skipping to the comments section. But better yet, keep reading, pick up these books, and see what you think...
Carl Sagan’s Contact
Influenced by her father who died when she was young, Ellie grows up to be a scientist, searching the skies for signs of intelligent life. She and her colleagues receive an extraterrestrial signal: build a device and the conversation will begin. Talk about a global stake!
But Ellie’s personal stake is tied up in the success or failure of the project. Why? Her father taught her listening to the stars was to listen to those we’ve loved and lost. The grown Ellie knows this can’t be true, but she dares to hope she might speak with her father once again. However, as terrorists threaten the project, both the global stake, and Ellie’s personal one, are at risk and the action is nonstop — because one stake is embedded in the other.
Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me
Global stakes don’t have to be about saving the world from nuclear disaster. But are global stakes compatible with a genre like romance? You betcha! Global stakes apply to the world. Any world.
For me, Fatal Voyage, more than any other novel, demonstrates the power of connecting personal stakes to global ones. It opens with global stakes. Forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan must identify the cause of a plane crash, otherwise, other travelers may be in jeopardy. That’s a great global stake. But an error in the recovery mission could cost Tempe her job, her reputation, and her career. This has personal stake written all over it, and it’s linked to the global one.
When the error begins to look like a cover-up to hide a crime, both sets of stakes jump again.
The stakes leapfrog at least one more time before the satisfying ending to this novel. And that ending has stayed with me. Because of the interdependence of the stakes.
Now, I’m determined.
In my own work, when it comes to stakes, I want to make mine well done. Now, the Rockville 8 wants to know... What do the stakes in your favorite books say to you?