Wednesday, March 30, 2011

#WW - Motivation and Stakes

For today's WriterWednesday post, I'm going to chat a bit about motivation and stakes, how they're different, and how they go hand in hand.

The easiest way for me to talk about it is in reference to my current WIP. Chapter 2 went okay, but chapter three caught me up big time. I e-mailed my critique partner and said it was taking me a long time because I was trying to sort out motivations. In other words, I kept getting caught up on WHY my characters were acting as they were, and trying to make sure that I gave them proper motivations so that it made sense.

So it took me nearly a week to write a whole chapter, and I finally sent it off and was still not happy. Neither, coincidentally, was my CP.

What was missing was stakes. Without stakes, my motivations didn't hold up the conflict. We often hear editors etc. say we need to up the stakes. What did my heroine have to lose? The way I'd written it, not much. Without Sam's help, she's going to have to scramble, sure. But I wrote it so that the timeline was "the next day" and with her being angry at him. My CP asked the right question - why does it have to be SAM? Why will no one else do? And what's at stake for Angela?

It took a major rethink, it meant I had to go back to chapters 1 and 2 and dribble in a tiny bit of foreshadowing, and then I heavily revised three.

Simply stated, my heroine's motivations for pushing Sam to help didn't hold water because she didn't have enough to lose. The stakes can be internal or external, or both (one feeds into the other). For example - if Sam does not show up to the Open House, it looks bad. His family is the major sponsor, and so their absence would be noted. The heroine is counting on his appearance to lead the way for the community because her project will need the community's support and assistance. So if Sam doesn't show up, all of that is at stake. (External) If the project isn't successful, there are also personal stakes involved. This project is Angela's baby - the thing she left her old job for, and if it fails it's her reputation on the line. More than that though is her worry for the people who she is helping who then won't GET help because she failed to do her job (or at least that's how she sees it). And that's the internal bit.

All of that was missing from chapter three. Looking at it now it seems obvious, but it wasn't.

Also Sam was missing stakes. What does he stand to lose if he takes time away from the ranch? And also his motivation was a little flat - he's going to help Angela. WHY? What's really pushing him to give in? I'd been holding back on a critical piece of information, thinking it should come later, but instead I layered it into the last scene of chapter three. It's perfect because Sam isn't just going to show up for the Open House, he's going to help Angela prepare for it. And those two additions of stakes and motivation meant that a whole lot of opportunities for pushing them together, developing the romance, and developing their character arcs just opened up.

Sometimes we hold back on information or plot points or revealing bits of character because we think it needs to come later. Sometimes we don't see it at all. But sometimes - a lot of the time - it needs to be there NOW. It's common to worry that if I do that NOW, I won't have anything else for later. But you will. Because you'll be forced to go deeper, and make things worse, and nine times out of ten (at least!) you'll come out with a stronger book.

Ironically enough? Just as I unlocked the secret of fixing chapter three (and moved the last scene of it to chapter 4, as I layered in A LOT), my galleys for HOW A COWBOY STOLE HER HEART arrived. I'm off to give my red pen a work out!

Happy Writing!

***edited to add: My CP e-mailed me to say she laughed at my post (she's really cruel, as you can tell) and that the failure of the project is the failure of Angela's dream (Personal stakes). And so it is! And I got that. But what I forgot to do was set her up to fail. That's the key! Threaten to take it away - and then there's a real reason to NEED the hero (even if he's the last person on earth she wants to need!). Anyway hopefully that sparks something in your own WIP!


  1. set her up to fail? You're evil, Donna! And I like it! (off to torture characters now)

  2. Hi Donna,

    Thanks for explaining about Motivation and Stakes.