Raising the Stakes

crocodile-594305_640As I slog through editing Raising Fear, I realize that there is a series of scenes where things happen, but not very much. There is tension, but it’s fairly level. A lot lurking under the surface, but it doesn’t rear up often enough.

While in real life, most of us would prefer to muddle along at a reasonably even keel, with a few ups. And we’d all prefer to skip the downs, thank you.

But that’s not what we look for in a novel. We want to get caught up in the adventures of someone we start to care about. Adventures, as the old saying goes, are bad things that happen to other people.

If the protagonist is put through all kinds of life-threatening perils, great. If emotionally she’s twisted and pummeled and otherwise beat up along the way, even better. We live vicariously through the characters we like, and keep turning the pages to see what happens to them and how they surmount whatever the author has thrown at them.

Sometimes, though, it seems that the writer doesn’t give his characters a minute to take a breath. Or at least a bathroom break. No sooner does his hero deal with one crisis, the next one is looming. Not just on the horizon, but knocking on the front door.

So back to Raising Fear. (Which, incidentally, could end being called something else altogether.) What can I do to raise the tension and mix it up so the reader doesn’t know if she can relax or brace herself for the next trial?

One thing is to make sure the stakes are clear. Early on I establish that people are punished by disappearing. One day they’re there, the next not. While that’s a vague threat that hangs over everyone’s head, I could make it clear that for my heroine, the threat is becoming more real.

Maybe I can have some kind of process, whereby someone is called in to see the Ephor, the official in charge of law and order. Or they receive a notice from the questor, the official in charge of the courts.

Or one morning a mark is put on their front door. This would have the advantage of letting all the neighbors know someone’s in trouble. On the other hand, this method would take away the element of surprise, at least as far as the neighbors are concerned.

The stakes could be raised by the threats extending to her mother, her friend’s mother, and some that couldn’t possibly be realized, but she doesn’t know that.

Another way to raise the tension is to make clear the or-else. If she doesn’t succeed, what will happen? My heroine’s major goal is to discover why her friend disappeared. As she tries to find out, she needs to realize that it could easily happen to her. All I need to do is drop some clues along the way so she understands this.

Now I’ve got some direction for my editing. Can’t see what trials and tribulations I can come up with for my characters…and how they succeed or fail.

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