How high do your stakes have to be?

How high do your stakes have to be when writing a story? Is death, destruction and violence necessary to push your story forward?

Short answer: no way.

I’ve been thinking about this lately after a discussion in a writers’ group on Facebook. A fellow writer said that she chickened out of entering a short story competition because she didn’t want to write about abuse.

Sigh. I chickened out. I just don't want to write abuse/abusive sex/murder/violence and it's hard to find a winning short story that doesn't use these elements for tension

I told her about my own stories, and how they rarely feature abuse or violence. It’s not something I’ve done consciously; it just doesn’t interest me. Don’t get me wrong. People die in my stories. But it’s rarely gruesome or grisly or unnecessary. And yet, I’ve been published and ranked well in competitions. I’ve even won a big one.

Lots of people don’t like mean stories. In fact, publishers want more nice stories!

Like National Flash Fiction Day. They broadcast on Twitter that they didn’t want any more death, destruction and apocalypse stories.

This was retweeted by The Short Story Publishing, who agreed. We wound up having a conversation about how high your stakes need to be. They said that generally, short stories focus on death and destruction, and they would prefer more uplifting reads.

High stakes without a death count?

Yes, it’s possible.

Every story is about a journey. That is where your tension comes from. The stakes can be seemingly low, but for your character/s they mean everything.

An example: I have a neighbour with severe physical disabilities. He’s very elderly and walks with two canes. When I say ‘walk’, I mean he hobbles. It takes him 45 minutes to walk the 500 metres from his apartment to the newsagent. He does this every single day to buy the paper. And then he turns around and walks back.

For that guy, the mere appearance of a badly placed rubbish bin, some newly lain concrete, a gaggle of teenagers who won’t move – these could be incredibly high stakes for him. In the right hands, that could be a compassionate, tense, moving, stressful story.

Or as The Short Story Publishing put it, even a paperclip could provide seriously high stakes.

Other kinds of stakes

Whatever prevents your hero from continuing on their journey is a high enough stake. They can be trapped physically, emotionally, mentally. They can be restrained physically, mentally, emotionally.

In other words, they can be stuck under a piano. Or they could be stuck at a piano, completely unable to play a note.

They can be held hostage by armed terrorists. Or they can be held hostage by their sister’s expectations of their behaviour.

They could witness the death and destruction caused by an evil regime. Or they could make the most of an interesting situation and strive to be their best.

They could be worried about the end of the world. Or they could just be worried that their child is becoming an adult.

Of course there are times when horrible things have to happen to or around your characters. But sometimes we feel compelled to make horrible things happen for the sake of the story. Are you sure you’re doing what’s right for the story? Or just what feels like the most bang for your buck?

We as writers can be more clever about what things propel our characters in their action. Going for death, rape, abuse, violence, etc can be lazy. We all live amazing interesting lives, and we rarely deal with such atrocities.

So don’t be afraid that your stakes aren’t high enough. The road block you have put in the path of your character only has to be big enough to stop them on their way. It doesn’t have to shock or appal anyone.

What do you think? Can you tell a good story without violence and murder?

0 Responses

  1. A great, relevant blog post, Natalie! Sometimes I don’t enter writing competitions because I feel like my story isn’t literary enough, i.e. doesn’t have enough rumination over the human condition. It’s very interesting to me to hear about writers not entering competitions because they don’t write about abuse/violence/murder. It’s also encouraging to hear that publishers want more nice, funny stories!

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.


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