Monday, April 4, 2011

Reading Like a Writer: Personal Stakes

For the month of April we are going to be discussing each Monday morning what is at stake—for our protagonist, for our antagonist, and also for us as the author.

Personal stakes are more than just what a hero wants to do. They illustrate the why: Why this goal and the action that must be performed matters in a profound and personal sense. The more it matters to your hero, the more it will matter to your readers, too  40).

Such is the case in one of my favorite novels of 2010, Betti on the Highwire by Lisa Railsback (Dial, 2010). Betti couldn’t have higher stakes. She is an orphaned refuge (in an unnamed country, which is what the author intended) and at a circus camp she oversees the “leftover children”—others who have been harmed, orphaned and almost killed. Soon, however, she is adopted—as is her friend George and is living in America.

Can one think of higher stakes—a higher wire for Betti to walk?

Here’s a passage:
            That’s why the villagers say our circus camp is haunted.
They say that the circus ghosts are still flying all over the place. They can hear the circus music floating through the woods on windy nights. Sometimes they think they hear gasps and clasps from the audience, and faint, happy singing from the circus people. The villagers won’t visit our circus camp because they are afraid.
That’s what happens during a war. Everyone is afraid of everything ( 3).

In my own novel Truth with a Capital T, the stakes are far less dire than surviving and healing from a recent war, but for Maebelle, they are just as high.  As she tries to find out what her talent is—what makes her special as she has no longer is in the gifted & talented program Maebelle does many a foolish thing. She attempts to bake a blackberry cobbler from an old family recipe—to disastrous results. She clogs—persuading her friends to join the dance competition with her and the stakes rise drastically when Mr. Phelps, the town librarian and historian sends Maebelle home with a research book: Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad  ( Anchor Books,  2011).

Maebelle reads a post it, Mr. Phelps left on the cover of the book for her, “Maebelle T.—take a good look at the quilt code. Let me know if you spot anything that looks like these around Oak Alley.”

Maebelle gets to work, reading and analyzing the patterns that made up slave quilts and what they may have signified to an escaping slave hoping to find their way to freedom. These quilts are a mystery and as Maebelle reads the book about decoding the clues the quilts contained she wonders if she will decode a mystery of her own: who is Ruby Red? And what is in the locked wing in her grandparent’s antebellum home?

By the end of her first night studying the book, Maebelle’s personal stakes, her investment in helping Mr. Phelps with his research as well as her dedication to finding out who Ruby Red is has increased.
That was enough for one night. There was a lot more to the quilt code, but my brain was all zigzaggy trying to understand. Everything Ozella had told the author was common knowledge to slaves. It wasn’t common knowledge to me. I was glad to see it was written down and even gladder Mr. Phelps had chosen to share it with me. Now I knew what to look for, even if Ruby Red still remained a mystery.   (173)

Later Maas goes on to write: “Raising personal stakes is especially crucial in character driven stories…raising  the stakes—the inner stakes—will deepen the reader’s concern about the outcome.”
So writers—roll the dice and raise those stakes!


  1. Hi Bethany, interesting post. Is Truth out yet on the shelves? Hope all is well! I'd love to catch up!

  2. It is! It is Tracy! I had been trying to get out to NYC but things got busy here in Austin. Truth with a Capital T released Oct. 2010 and it just made the Bank Street 2010 Best Books of the Year list!