Action With Impact: Writing for Emotional Stakes (a Reflection)

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It has been a long time since I retired the “novel updates” series and moved on to other focuses, so this write-up is a bit of a throwback. This article was born when the stars aligned as I read the perfect book for my current stage in the writing cycle. 

I am less than 10,000 words from finishing my current manuscript. It’s a fantasy epic, so it ends with an obligatory pulse-pounding action scene. As I outlined and updated this act, I finished reading the subject of last week’s review. Among her many other strengths, Adeyemi absolutely nailed the ending, so much so that I found myself reflecting on the ‘how’ days later. Why did the climax in Children of Blood and Bone ring so true?

We all know that conflict drives a story forward. A protagonist, a goal, and obstacles between the two are the foundations of Story since the beginning of language. The challenge is, how do we get the audience to care about the conflict? What is the fuel that fires investment, the currency that buys engagement?

It all comes down to stakes.

Stakes are what the protagonist stands to gain or lose by overcoming the aforementioned obstacles. They answer the question – “Why does this matter?” The going should get tough in any story worth reading. What keeps your main character going? What keeps your reader caring whether they do?

Earning Emotional Investment

Consider Ted. 

If I tell you Ted lost his job, you probably feel sorry for him… but if that’s the end of the story and you have no other context, that feeling fleeting is blown aside by the winds of unanswered questions. There’s no connection with the reader. But, Ted has a problem, and the audience can imagine having a similar problem. Let’s arbitrarily measure our give-a-darn for ‘ole Ted at 5%. 


We might ask, what sort of person is Ted? If we like Ted, we might care a little more. Words are cheap, so let’s show Ted being likable. Perhaps he rescues a puppy, or intentionally befriends outcasts. It’s easy to cheer for a likable person. The Investment-Meter reads 12%.

Ted’s pain is universally relatable.

Let’s make it personal. Let’s examine Ted’s relationship to his lost job. 

The reader’s attitude towards the job will reflect the character’s. What if it wasn’t just a job – what if it was THE job: Ted’s dream job. He worked so hard to get where he was – late nights, weekends, school debt. Perhaps he doesn’t feel that all-important sense of competence and respect in any other arena of his life. Perhaps he found fulfillment in the way his worked helped his community. Who knows. People connect with these fundamental emotional needs. If we put in the effort to demonstrate how the lost job shaped Ted’s sense of self, our readers’ investment might approach 50%. 

A surmountable problem is a dismissible problem. A quick example: I recently played a table-top role-playing game session where the published adventure seemed to want the players to spend a few game sessions investigating a town’s problems and solving them by overcoming a series of challenges. The problem was real, and we liked the characters (ourselves), but each challenge could be solved with a single die-roll. Surmountable. Dismissible. 

How does this apply to Ted? We must thwart Ted’s efforts to find new employment, or the audience will dismiss his problems. What if Ted isn’t qualified for any other line of work? What if none is available? What if his only alternative is offensive? What pressures would drive him to accept that option over his own objections? What if he’s been blacklisted? Readers can relate to that sense of frustrated need. Investment is bumping up against 78%. 

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. If your story is about the struggle of ordinary people against the great unfeeling gears of an exploitative culture, then that’s probably all the explanation you need – but make sure that choice is intentional. In most stories, we can dial the engagement up another notch if we anchor the reader with an emotion. For Ted’s job-loss scenario, let’s go with righteous anger. We’ve all felt the sting of injustice – either for ourselves, loved ones, or just people out there in the world. What if Ted’s firing was no accident? What if he was wrongly accused by a rival he thought was a friend? What nesting-doll mystery might motivate such a betrayal? Readers must know the answer now that they feel Ted’s pain at his betrayal.

Ted has a problem he cannot easily overcome. He’s likeable. He has relationships the reader can identify with. He has relatable goals and dreams frustrated by the problem. The audience sees the ways his problem affects him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The problem itself is likewise more than random chance – it is personal. Our imaginary readers’ investment tops 90%. They definitely need to finish Ted’s story. 

A Case-Study

I want you to read this book, so I’m going to keep the details as light as possible, but (very) mild spoilers for Children of Blood and Bone follow. 

The climax of Children… is, on the surface, pretty standard epic fantasy fare. We have a big fight against a powerful foe set against a ticking clock with global well-being on the line. The action provides the flash and sizzle, but Adeyemi ratchets up the stakes by personalizing this huge conflict. 

First – and beyond the scope of this article – she’s written good characters. They’re flawed, but ultimately both relatable and likable. 

Second, they’re integrated. The main characters have strong, layered, emotional connections to one another. We’ve walked with them as they grew closer to one another. In the end, the reader isn’t just worried that the characters might die. They worry about the impact of those deaths on the relationships we care about: Sympathetic friendships will end. Romance will die. Hearts will break. The characters will never enjoy the fullness of their hard-won personal realizations if their journeys are cut short. 

The connections don’t stop with the protagonists. Each of the four main characters has a nuanced individual relationship with the antagonist. The Big Bad does more than swish his black cape and plot evil deeds. He impacts each other character in a specific, personal ways. The reader doesn’t cheer for the heroes to defeat the Evil Overlord. They cheer for the downfall of the bully, the critic, the manipulator. They care because the villain’s end means a fresh start for the heroes: a physical symbol of their internal emotional journeys. 


Conclusion

Welcome back spoiler-skippers. Writer-reader, I’m on this journey with you, but I hope my sharing observations about a good book and posing a few questions helps make your next project just a bit better. 

Happy reading, and happy writing.

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