On Revising, Part 5: Raising the stakes

I think I’m ready for the big “Deep Think” revision on my project, The American Nine, and I’m super excited about it.

Whenever I get to about the third (out of four minimum) revisions I like to consider it to be my “Big Idea” revision. That’s when I take a look at everything about my story and see if there is anything structurally the matter with the piece. Are my characters (especially the MC) compelling? Does the story flow? Does my plot have any leaks or dead ends?

Thankfully, I had a chance to show my manuscript to some beta readers, and one in particular, a published author I’ve gotten to know well over the past couple of years. And she was nice enough to give me comments, the whole nine yards.

There’s a type of critique that really puffs you up and there’s a type of critique that pulls you down, pulls you down so hard it either breaks your will or you totally disregard it. The critique I got was a third kind – the kind that excites you with the possibilities that you didn’t see before. It’s the type of critique that shines a light onto something you didn’t realize and lights the way to a better story.

There was a lot to it, but the essential part of the critique was this (I’m paraphrasing here): “Well, it’s all good to have an interesting character going through interesting experiences. But it’s not like he’s in danger of losing, is there? Not the way you have it written. The way you have it written, I know he’s always going to succeed. There’s not the suspense there, is there?”

It was then that I realized:

I needed to raise the stakes in my novel.

Let me try to explain this a little.

One of the deadliest things that a beta reader, or any reader, really, can say about a book is, “Well, who cares?” If you want readers to care about your story, you have to make that story involve struggle.

If I was going to define what stakes were, I would lay it out like this. What does your MC have to gain if they succeed? What do they have to lose if they don’t? Are they the type of things that other readers could relate to, even if they don’t find themselves in the same situations as those characters? Could they relate to them, at least?

The problem was, my MC was always winning. Even that’s OK, but I have to make sure that it’s tough for them to do that. There has to be doubt in the readers’ minds that your character is going to succeed and some consideration of where the character is going to be if they fail.

Essentially, the premise of my book is, what would an American version of Diego Maradona or Lionel Messi look like? What would that person’s path be to soccer glory, and what would they have to overcome to make that happen?

In reading over my beta reader’s comments, I realized that I had dedicated most of my time to ensuring that my MC would reach those heights and not enough time putting obstacles in his path. For example, Diego had to overcome poverty, and Lionel had to overcome hormone deficiency to become the soccer gods they eventually became.

What did my character have to overcome to reach his goals, especially as a 17-18 year old kid starting to learn about life and what it takes to succeed? I had to show more of the building and less of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, essentially. I had to show the struggle, the climb to the top, to make sure that people cared about what happened to my MC.

That’s the challenge that I’m going to face with this next revision. I have to admit, I’m almost grinning at the challenge. There has to be a struggle, and there has to be a payoff, in life and on the page.

I’ve got some work to do. I can’t wait.


3 thoughts on “On Revising, Part 5: Raising the stakes

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