Does every scene raise the stakes of your plot?
Lately, I’ve been playing a little game called RTS. It stands for Raise The Stakes, and it’s made a big difference in the tension of my novel.
In order to catch and keep your reader’s attention, you have to involve them with your characters. You want them to love them or hate them, root for or against them, and be actively involved with them. (Think of the audience in The Truman Show). Every scene should create a dilemma for your character, leaving the reader to wonder how your hero/heroine will react and get out of this newest problem. This is especially true at the end of chapters. The absolute worst thing you can do is end a chapter where the H/H goes to bed. This is known as the “back-of-the-toilet” scenario, whereupon your reader, metaphorically or literally, turns the open book upside down on the back of the toilet and leaves, possibly never to return to reading your cherished story.
What you want to do is raise the stakes for your H/H in each scene. Whether it is major, like killing someone/finding a body, or minor, like having something prevent you from completing the report your boss really, really needs, some ACTION has to happen to prevent your character from going on her merry way.
No one wants to read a book where nothing happens.
Raise The Stakes, or RTS, came to me as I fine tuned my outline for the last third of my current WIP, The Dearly Departed Dating Service. Of course, I wanted a HEA (happily ever after) for my heroine, but I want it in a specific way. I kept thinking about how a totally different character from one of my favorite authors achieved a similar HEA (the plots are not even close in similarity). I spent a few days reading her novel again. First for pleasure, and second, deconstructing each scene.
How I deconstructed a novel
First, I established in whose viewpoint was the scene written. This author fairly split the scenes between hero and heroine. This effectively raised the stakes for the reader as switching between the H/H’s dilemmas kept them curious and involved. You knew Joe had been hit with a new problem in the last scene, and here’s Jane getting hit, as well, but what about Joe? Better keep reading.
Next, I wrote down who else was involved in the scene and why. Each character has to have a reason to be there. If not, get rid of him.
Next, I wrote a two or three sentence synopsis of what was happening in the scene. More often than not, one of these actions was the RTS. How can the Heroine pay back the money she owes when her job is threatened? How can the Hero salvage an important meeting when someone shows up uninvited who he knows will ruin it? What do you mean, you’re married?
As large or as small as each problem is, they incrementally suck your reader further into your story. Each scene should raise the stakes, propelling the characters deeper and deeper into chaos until your reader has to keep turning the page.
Sure, it’s fun to write that scene where this or that happens to X, but if X isn’t disturbed by it, why would your reader want to spend time on it? Dull scenes are the death of your novel.
An exercise for you
Take one of your favorite books off your keeper shelf. You know, the one that kept you up until 2 a.m. Deconstruct some of the scenes. Maybe not the whole book, but enough to understand what the author is doing – swirling her characters down a whirlpool and taking you along.
Once you’ve recognized how neatly and masterfully your author has entrapped you, the reader, apply some of her methods to your own writing. Take a current scene from your WIP and analyze it, keeping RTS in mind. Are you raising the stakes for your characters? What can you add that will make it worse for them? Do you need to drop a secondary character or add someone else? What EVENT has to happen to make things worse?
Whatever changes you make, ensure that your character is left off worse at the end of the scene than the beginning. Your novel will be enriched, and your reader enthralled.