1. RahnyJae
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    RahnyJae Member

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    How do I raise stakes without death?

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by RahnyJae, Jul 22, 2016.

    I know that protags need to lose bad before they can win (if they win), but does the thing that shows the antagonist's strength have to be the death of someone? In this crime drama I'm writing, there's MC Gangster that the beginning of the story follows. He's keeping his distance from his family/partners in crime because of his own personal issues. But then there's trouble with the business and he can't afford to ignore them, so he finally interacts with them. My first time meeting these characters is in the middle of things popping off. I'm hesitant to have them die for a few reasons:

    1. It feels like the impact of their deaths would be weak because they only just arrived to the story. While anecdotes and dialogue will help set up their personalities, killing them off would feel like reducing them to a plot device or just hitting an action beat in the story.

    2. The MC already lost both his parents and older brother during the last gang war ten years ago. Killing off his pseudo-siblings--the 2nd and only family he has left--this time around feels repetitive. And I know that death comes with this lifestyle and so yeah, it does get repetitive because it keeps happening even in real life, but...I don't know. The circumstances around this gang war are different than the last, so I feel like the aftermath should be different, too, especially different from what we expect out of a gang war, which is for people to drop left and right.

    3. On shaking the MC's resolve, I'm also lukewarm on having other characters in peril to serve this purpose. I think it might be better to have him directly affected. Like if someone's going to get kidnapped and tortured, it should be him--not his best friends/partners--since he is the head of the snake, right? I would much rather see him having to Die Hard his way out of a bad situation than rushing to or debating saving someone else and that other person loses their life to teach him a lesson. And this way, with him in the hot seat, the other characters would get ample development time as they work to save him. I just worry that if I put the MC too deep into some mess, if he gets out of it, it will seem like he has plot armor. Any tips on how to avoid that?

    I don't want to end up writing a Daredevil-esque thing where the ninja is stabbing everybody left and right, but the second he reaches DD, he puts the blade away and they have martial arts slap fight. No shade to DD, but it's like that hospital scene in S2, c'mon now. lol :rolleyes:

    Right now, I'm in the mindset of not wanting to kill anyone off and I feel good about that choice, but I'm so used to high stakes = death of a loved one, that I'm drawing blanks on what else I could do to put my MC through it. Any suggestions of other ways to raise the stakes without having to kill someone off just to let everyone know the antag means business? Can an MC still lose if no one he cares about is dead or do you feel like that's an automatic cop-out?
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2016
  2. Sparrow Kuhn
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    Sparrow Kuhn Member

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    I think your perspective is great already - it would probably be more impactful to have the stakes be different for the hero this time around. Maybe it would be helpful to analyze what other things your MC already has? Perhaps he's made a promise to someone that he intends to keep, and is threatened with having to break that promise. Does he have monetary wealth, or a relatively safe hideout to retreat to? You could threaten his health somehow - it's unlikely that he could continue his lifestyle as it is if he were blind, or confined to a wheelchair. The other thing you could threaten is his future. Does your villain have a way to prevent your MC from continuing to be part of the gang he is in, or from advancing as a part of it?
     
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  3. newjerseyrunner
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    newjerseyrunner Contributing Member

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    A pet? Killing a beloved pet would cause havoc on a character's emotions.
     
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  4. RahnyJae
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    RahnyJae Member

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    Wow, your thinking is really on track. MC does actually have a heart condition that ties into his internal arc. He has had the option to be cured for over a year by the start of the story, but he's been rejecting it because he doesn't know if he wants another few decades of this life that he feels doesn't mean anything. Basically the whole beginning when he's keeping his distance from his partners, he's on this search for "something worth living for" and for a while he didn't find it, so he has been walking around in this mindset of waiting to die. Then he met someone, pre-gang war, outside of the business, who gradually became something he considers a reason to stick around and this person gradually comes to believe in a future with him, as well. That gets interrupted and knocked off course by the start of the gang war. He only has a few years left if he keeps up with his health. But because of the stress of the gang war, that's been difficult to uphold. Just recently, in the latest chapter, he has an episode and the doctor warned him that a few years can become a few months if he lets it. So there is that threat of his health declining sooner than expected looming above.

    And yes, they are wealthy gangsters. They're set up is actually like a monarch with royal families, Elder councils, and the like. And then there are the lowers who work for them--the street gangs in the poor cities. There are actually two villains, but only one is known. The first villain is the one who sets everything off--street gang leader--and so MC's gang is putting everything behind catching him. In the last war, this same Street Gang Leader acted alone. What they don't know is that this time around, one of the other royal families is not only secretly backing the Street Gang Leader, but really using him to push MC's royal family out and absorb their territory.

    Good question on the end...Okay...I'm thinking maybe the Betraying Royal--rather than doing a big violent coup (because S.G.L. is already doing that)--there can also be the option for a more...civil or "legal" takeover? Like he's already sabotaging MC's gang, right, and that could get them all killed by the Elders should they leave their temple to clean up this mess, so perhaps the purpose of the sabotaging could be to force MC into such a corner with S.G.L. that B.R. is the only one who can get him out of it without alerting the Elders and in exchange for that he demands MC dissolve his House and sign the territory over to him, which could mean him and the rest of his gang have to separate, leave their homes, lose their identities, & wealth...
    Two of the others were already pissed at MC and felt like it was his fault their reign was being challenged in the first place because his disappearing act put a crack in their armor, so to speak, and of course there's the one who's more sympathetic, but also suffering because of MC's mistakes, so they'd all walk away from each other on bad terms...
    And MC would be separated from the one person who was becoming his "something to live for" and his heart would reach a point where it's like 'now or never' concerning the cure...

    So they would lose everything without losing their literal lives and the antagonist prevails...(for now, the rat bastard! lol)

    ...I like that.

    Edit: I've been working with the brainstormed idea for a few hours now and I'm really liking it. I'll stick with it and see where I end up. Thanks for you help, Sparrow. :)
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2016
  5. RahnyJae
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    RahnyJae Member

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    My MC does have a John Wick moment, only it was over something that happened to his love interest. He doesn't have a pet.
     
  6. T.D. Dixon
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    T.D. Dixon New Member

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    R.J. explore what you have currently and find out what exactly is the most primitive, primal fear your MC has. Protection of family, fear of death itself, sex, survival, hunger -- something every human being can relate to. Everyone in the world including your characters has these fears in one shape or the other.

    If your MC is already dealing with death due to his declining health (I think I understood you there. My mistake if not...), then a shoot out isnt going to be as impactful because he's potentially facing death anyway. Perhaps the answer is not so difficult. I'm just spit balling here but maybe the MC is working with the police force as a mole. His job is to retain information in return for protection of his family. If he dies or fails to do this, he goes to prison and his family gets nothing.

    Also, what if your MC is DEFINITELY dying. Say... tthree months to live. He needs an operation but doesnt have the funds to make it happen. The police can provide that barring he accomplishes the task at hand including protect his family. This way you have the fear of loss at a second chance at life AND protection of his family in order to raise the stakes. To loose a second chance at life is a greater risk/stake than death itself. I dunno....
     
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  7. RahnyJae
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    RahnyJae Member

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    This is a good string of ideas. I actually don't have a cop thread in this story, though. It's all gangster factions focused. When I first came up with the idea, I thought about adding the secret cop-trying-to-bring-everything-down story line because that's always what I expect in this genre, but it didn't get me excited this time around, so I decided to leave it out.

    See, I feel like my MC's fear--which is what causes him to neglect his health in the first place--is having no purpose, no reason to go on. He's lonely, depressed, feels burdened by a life he didn't choose; his whole family (parents and older brother) has been dead for a decade--killed by this lifestyle--and he's had to uphold his family's part in the criminal organization on his own since then. But I don't know--does depression or any of what I described count as "most primitive & primal...?" Hmm.

    You understood correct. His health is declining and it's about to get worse as he's just been handed over to a psychotic enemy and he's been without the shots he's supposed inject in his chest to slow down the illness. Plus the shock of being betrayed and being in the enemy's hands--there's a lot putting a lot of stress on his system.

    In the very beginning, MC was in between looking for a reason to care and not caring if he dies. Then right before the betrayal happened, for the first time in a long time he was a little more on the 'want to live' side due to his connection with L.I. and L.I.'s two kids and a budding belief in the chance to choose another life for himself. But after the big betrayal, when he's about to meet his end, he regresses to resigning himself to the belief that a short meaningless life and violent end is all he was ever destined for.

    That's when L.I. comes to his rescue and MC is reminded why he should keep fighting. L.I. needs his help getting the kids out. (They were all dragged into this mess because of L.I.'s own criminal baggage, not to blackmail MC in any way.)
    So MC's desire to protect and save them = securing his second chance at the life he wants, making him spring into action. So in this case, a shoot out scenario could impact MC due to the focus on protecting his new family, as opposed to him only trying to save himself...is this any good?

    During the escape, L.I. and MC could be separated from the kids--kids are left behind. MC takes himself and severely wounded L.I. to his hideout in some unknown dusty dank place...At this point, MC can now be on the definitely dying train, life expectancy shortened to a few months and he's nowhere near his doctor or anywhere he could get proper treatment. So in this case, he would be battling overt sickness while he and recovering L.I. have to plot to get back home, save the kiddies, kill all the butthole people (with the help of some of his former partners if he can earn back their faith), and hopefully save MC by getting him in an operating room when this is all over, if it's not too late by then...Any good?

    How am I doing 'high stakes' wise?

    ...Have you ever been explaining a story and then mid way through it starts to sound dumb? That literally just happened to me. lol
     
    Last edited: Jul 28, 2016
  8. T.D. Dixon
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    T.D. Dixon New Member

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    lol.

    Frankly, it sounds really messy. Intriguing...but messy. I say this because it sounds like you have a lot of sub plots to coincide with your main story line. I said this in another thread but, keep your story simple and your characters complicated. Not the other way around. Central plot, one sub plot and your good. I"m not stating to have just a hero and a villain. This keeps the MC's goals streamlined and easier to manage. Every supporting character exists to help your MC learn the lesson and reach his goals - in some way. The antagonist and hench man are there as obstacles - meant to stop MC from reaching his goals by any means. Keep this in mind while creating your story.

    Sometimes I will sit back and just imagine the world and characters and what they would do. That's research. That's also writing. Work with what you have. Most times the answer is right in front of you.
     
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  9. SethLoki
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    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    I'm liking the depth that's been gotten to in the mulling above. Although I agree with @T.D. Dixon re. over-complication can take focus away from characters, I think in this case it may be doable as the proposed subplots all rest close to the MC and crank the pressure, where it should do for the reader, in his head.

    If you did want to simplify, what about stripping out the progression of the illness? Just have him ailing and wanting out in part because of this. Additionally have the someone he met go missing (kidnapped or driven away by antagonist)? This can be the stake raiser and one less character to write about in their absence. While your MC sorts out his 'shit-storm' he's fed a 'come find me' message from the absentee who's set up comfortably elsewhere and offering an escape...and by that the necessary motivation.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
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  10. RahnyJae
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    RahnyJae Member

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    @SethLoki and @T.D. Dixon You're both spot on.

    "Story simple, characters complicated." Words I shall commit to memory.

    Last night I came to that same conclusion. The story is way too busy. I've fallen into a familiar trap of thinking I need to have a lot of outside things in motion to drive a plot, so the story is bloated with all these genre bells and whistles and I think that's making me lose connection with just the two lonely characters I initially wanted this story to be about. This has happened to me before with other stories, you'd think I'd catch on sooner. lol Anyways, I'm going to take some time to trim the fat and focus things before adding another scene to this clutterbomb. Thank you both so much for your input. :)
     
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  11. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Emotions. Anything people value can raise the stakes. Maybe they threaten his significant other? Maybe they mess with his employment in some way? Maybe they frame him for something? Whatever suits the circumstance. So no, you don't just need to kill people.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
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  12. SethLoki
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    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Brilliant. Guilty of letting many of these through my bay doors!
     
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  13. Seraph751
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    Seraph751 If I fell down the rabbit hole...

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    Raise the stakes through motivation. A goal, a quota, something along those lines. Yes fear is indeed a powerful tool, however, you may find that when motivated for what a character views as a step forward for them, may cause an explosion of growth for said character.
     
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  14. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Raising the stakes in a story isn't about having something bad happen. It's about increasing the potential of something bad happening ...if.

    If he doesn't get the job done. If he doesn't rescue the hostage. If he doesn't get home in time. If he can't get his wife to believe him.

    Increase the amount/intensity of the bad stuff that WILL happen if he fails in his quest or purpose, and you'll be raising the stakes. Your character MUST be desperate to succeed, because failure will bring devastating consequences. Your job as a writer is to make the failure seem increasingly likely. And so he has to commit even more of what he can't afford to lose in the fight to win. That's raising the stakes.

    Increase the certainty that somebody he loves will be hurt if he fails. Then increase the possibility they will actually die if he fails. That's raising the stakes. If they do actually die, that doesn't raise the stakes. The worst has happened and the game is over. You'll be setting up a whole new story arc to finish the story, which will now be about revenge, or something like that.

    Think of 'stakes' as if you're playing a poker game. If you increase your stake in the game, that means you stand to lose a lot more than if your stake is small. That's the principle here. Make your character's stake so high they really can't afford to lose.

    Figure out your character's worst fear, then do what you can to increase it.
     
    Last edited: Jul 29, 2016
  15. T.D. Dixon
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    T.D. Dixon New Member

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    Agreed. The Cohen Bros said something I'll never forget. They said, simply put your character in the worst situation imaginable and have them dig their way out of it. I've never forgotten that.

    I tell my clients to forget about "breaking in the bizz." Thats not actually what you're trying to do. Break into you and you'll break into the bizz. Become the person who is worthy enough to be there. This applies to MC's as well because they constantly have to make decisions and take actions that teach them to reach within to over come. This causes growth. People love that stuff. As long as your MC is striving beyond his/her comfort zone to obtain their goal, win or loose, you'll have a greater chance at success and keep your audience engaged throughout the telling of your story.
     
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