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How to Write a Novel: Stakes, Risks, and a whole lot of Tension

So I also go this topic from reading the forums on absolute write, a very helpful site in itself that’s in my blogroll. Anyway, a topic came up about the stakes and risks rising and understandably, many of the participants on the forum were a little confused. Tension rises, but the stakes and the risk don’t have to increase. They can stay just the same. Quick question though. What are the stakes?

The stakes are the things is liable to be lost or events that will possibly happen if the protagonist does not accomplish his or her goal, in other words, losing the conflict her has with the antagonist, whatever that may be. Risks are basically the same thing in this sense, although your protagonist can take risks that will get them closer to the goal or further away. The writer can raise the stakes, meaning the protagonist gets something else to worry about that will happen as a result of not accomplishing the goal, but the stakes don’t have to raise. They can stay pretty much the same.

Someone is probably in their head saying. That’s not true. The stakes always have to raise. Uh… no. They don’t. I think what writers and readers mistaken as a rising of the stakes is just the protagonist gaining a better understanding of the stakes. From that understanding, the protagonist over the course of the book begins to care more about accomplishing their goal. It’s not that the stakes have risen, but the character is making much more of a big deal about it that he or she might have been in the beginning.

Let’s take Harry Potter. In the first book, all Harry knew was that Voldemort was this evil wizard who wanted to come back with the sorcerer’s stone, but everything was good. He had his two best friends, and he was happy However, by the time Voldemort comes back and the sixth book rolls around, there’s considerable more stress on Harry’s part about Voldemort. Why? Well because Voldemort’s back now for one and that makes his threat a hell of a lot more real, not to mention now he’s beginning to understand why Voldemort can come back and why he was never completely vanquished. The stakes are still the same. The stakes are basically the safety and security of the wizarding world for the whole series (throw in Harry’s life somewhere too, but we all knew he was going to survive).

Well, what did rise? The tension of course. Tension is caused by the conflict and when the conflict is agitated and there is more understanding of what the stakes the tension rises. Tension is just the hostility and the stress caused between two characters and that’s why the further along in a novel you get, the more the reader wants to know what happens (or should want to anyway) because a person should be able to sense it in the writing. How do you resolve? Well, the climax tends to do that.

It’s like this. Two people can’t stand each other. Now lock them in the same room. More than likely, they will purposely do things just to irk each other. Leave then in that room a little too long and undoubtedly they’ll get to fighting. Win, lose, or stalemate though, it’s going to be a while before they get at odds again because they’ve released the hostility and tension from before. That’s what a novel is except usually, a protagonist defeats the antagonist for good, relieving the tension and hostility for good, unless you’re dealing with a series compiling a bunch of little battles at the end of each book before the final showdown in the last.

So that’s what it is folks. Know the difference between stakes, risks, and tension, because it will come back to bite you in the butt hard if you don’t pull it off right. The stakes can stay the same, but for the explosion that is the climax to be believable, the tension has to rise.

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