Sunday, September 19, 2010

Make Mine Well Done

One topic has kept the Rockville 8 buzzing all week: Stakes.

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.

When we read Bet Me, we watch prickly Min Dobbs reluctantly fall for Cal Morrisey. Min has clear-cut personal stakes. But what is going on in the wider world Min inhabits? Her beloved sister is getting married. And Min’s determined Diana will have the perfect wedding before living happily ever after. That’s quite a global stake.

Every time Diana’s happiness, the global stake, is in jeopardy, Min must accept Cal’s help to make it right. So her personal stake rises in relation to the global stake. Since the stakes are linked, they make for a fun book that stays with the reader.

Kathy Reichs’s Fatal Voyage
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.
Tempe turns to her lawyer ex-husband for advice, and unfortunately, a night of comfort. Now, he wants to reconcile. When her would-be boyfriend arrives, he ups the global stakes by revealing his partner died in the crash while transporting a witness, and he ups the personal ones.
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?


  1. Nichole - ever since we started talking about this I've been looking at what I'm reading and writing and trying to tease out the global/personal stakes. I think in my MS, I have hints of the global issues at stake, but haven't yet hooked them into the personal stakes. Hopefully I'll get there!!

    You are so right that the most "stick to your ribs" stories are the ones that feed us on more than one level. And that the global doesn't have to be "the world is exploding."

    I think about Betty Neal and wonder, where the heck are the global stakes in her doctor-nurse stories. And I think a case *could* be made that the global stakes are nothing less than the maintainance of a certain kind of England. Perhaps one that never existed in truth, but was/is as comforting to her readers as Mrs. Miniver would have been during the war. When one of Neal's heroine's is at risk of starvation/poverty/bad relatives it is not only of real importance to HER that her circumstances change, it is of vital importance to society that her happily ever after comes true. To have it otherwise would hail the beginning of the fall of the English Empire (not to say that it hadn't already fallen many years past, but still). That might be reaching a bit, but I don't think I'm so far off. There is a touch of Ur story in the Neal books, they are fairy tales of a sort, and fairy tales have to work within that duality as well, right?

  2. Nichole, you know how much I LOVE this topic. Like everything else, though, I am still trying to get a handle on it. I really like your examples, particularly "Bet Me." Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  3. Thanks, Keely and Yvonne!

    It seems to me one blog post just can't cover all the possibilities when we connect global and personal stakes. But I'm glad to help get the conversation started.

    Keely, I think you're right on about romance stakes sometimes being about a big concept, like the continuation of a cultural identity. Finding global stakes in a romance may be a challenge. But they're there, aren't they. And they make for great reads!

  4. I love this interwoven stakes idea. I didn't realize I did this in my own mss, so thanks for explaining it! Great examples, too. :-D

  5. Sounds like you've got great stakes instincts, Meg.

    Sometimes, I can see it in my own work, too. And once I started looking for it, I realized those kind of interconnected stakes stories are the ones that get me so fired up. Who knew?

    I'm a firm believer in "if we can identify it, we can do it" again, and again, and again.

    Here's to more great stakes in your work... and hopefully mine!

  6. I just read "Insatiable" by Meg Cabot. One of the global stakes is that there is a group of vampires who have gone rogue and are killing women. One of the heroine's personal stakes is that she has fallen for the prince of all vampires. I'm not a die-hard vampire fan (though I've enjoyed many stories about them) but this really grabbed me. The danger is all around her through the fact that there is a threat from all vampires and from the fact that the head vampire, who is there to stop them, wants to make her his own.

    I love this ongoing conversation we're having about this. Thanks for blogging about it, Nicole!

  7. Thanks for joining the chat, Lisa.

    You bring up a great point. Intertwining the stakes can really ratchet up the suspense and keep the hero or heroine on his or her toes. Which is so much fun to read! And, I have it on good authority, it also makes for an attractive project when approaching agents and editors. Talk about win/win!

    Thanks for bringing it up.