Last week I talked about how Game of Thrones is teaching me so much about the craft of writing. I looked closely at how the creation of vibrant, three-dimensional characters has really helped me to get into the story and kept me reading. The reason so many people are upset when George R.R. Martin kills off a character is because they have come to like the characters so much.
Well, this week I want to talk about the other huge, important writing craft thing I’m learning from GoT. Because it isn’t just the characters that have drawn me in, it’s the stakes.
Okay. You might be asking yourself “What exactly are stakes and why are they important for a story?” I first came across the concept of stakes—or rather, had a concept that I vaguely knew about solidified into the category of stakes—while reading Donald Maass’s excellent book on writing, Writing the Breakout Novel. Maass talks in theory about what Martin executes perfectly.
Stakes are basically what risk the characters are taking as they navigate through their stories and what they stand to lose if they don’t meet their goals. The tricky thing about stakes, though, is that what you might think are the highest stakes your characters could have—namely dying or having the world blow up or some other cataclysmic event—aren’t actually the most dire nor the most emotionally satisfying risks on which to build a story. Stakes are directly tied into how much we like the characters and how intricately our emotions as readers have been woven into their fates.
Yes, the stakes are pretty dark high for a lot of the characters in GoT. Kingdoms hang in the balance. People teeter on the verge of life and death in just about all of the subplots. But you know what? It isn’t the fact that the kingdom is on the line that keeps me glued to the page. It’s things like whether Arya will get to learn to sword fight or if Jon will make peace with his place in the Stark family or how Tyrion will get himself out of the situations he finds himself in that I love. They are the personal plots of the characters as opposed to the great big machinations of the world that Martin has built. At the same time, the personal stakes for the characters are profoundly influenced by the world they inhabit.
I think the key to writing a page-turner with characters that you end up thinking about long after the book is done is the immediacy of the stakes that they’re up against. And when I say that, I mean in terms of immediacy for the reader. None of us (hopefully) are in a position where our kingdom and our fate is tied to a conflict generations in the making. But we have all experienced conflict. We’ve all run into selfish people and those who should be doing a better job than they are. We all know what it feels like to want something that we’re so close to having, to be thrust into a spot where we don’t want to be, and we’ve all been young and foolish.
Human drama is far more exciting than tales of kings and power. Although, really, it’s all tied up together and kind of the same thing. It’s those personal stakes and the emotion behind them that make a great story. The same is true of Romance too, btw. I have read a lot of plots in which the hero is determined to win the heroine in spite of her resistance. The dull ones have stakes along the lines of “He must win her or he’ll be disappointed because he wants her”. The really juicy ones have stakes like “He must win her because without her he will lose his inheritance or position”. And the really, REALLY juicy ones are more like “He must win her because without her everyone who has ever called him a wastrel and a rake will be proven right and he will disappear into that dark pit forever”. There can actually be a lot of incredibly compelling stakes involved in Romance, because Romance is, in essence, about the most intimate relationships between people.
So if you find yourself writing and things just aren’t clicking, if even you are falling asleep as you read your own work, it might be because the stakes you’re working with aren’t high enough. Take a lesson from Game of Thrones and the interlacing of personal goals and the influences of the world you’ve created. Think about what your characters stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goals, and then bump that up a notch. It’s all about making the reader completely unable to put the book down.