Building a Story - Starting with "the stakes"

Just as there are different ways of building a building, there are different ways of building a story. With most modern buildings there is a pretty detailed plan, some writers do that as well, others do not. Much like builders, there are different pieces to a story that you can use. Today I am going to play with some of those.

What are the variables that we have available as a writer?

As general categories we have setting, character, and plot. Usually at this point conflict is mentioned as well. Slightly more detailed we have point of view, tense, narrative voice, reversals, discoveries, intentions, obstacles, stakes, and tactics. These are the pieces that I will use to work at building a story, but first we have to know some of our options concerning these pieces.

I am not going to exhaust all of the options, I will just go over some of the main options.

Setting: physics, geography, time, people, creatures.

Character: hopes and dreams, fears, pains, pleasures, habits, likes, dislikes, past experiences, traumas, addictions.

Plot: really, just any sequence of events; making a plot is easy, making a good plot is hard.

Point of View: first person subjective, objective, or omniscient, second person, third person omniscient, third person limited close, third person limited distant, and third person objective.

Tense: past, present, and . . . future? There are really 16 tenses in English, but that is too much to think about for me.

Narrative voice: multi-character voice, stream of consciousness, viewpoint character, unreliable narrator, and epistolary voice.

Reversals: good/bad, bad/good, good/bad/good, bad/good/bad.

Discoveries, intentions, obstacles, stakes, and tactics depend to a large extent on the specifics of the story.

I have read excellent books that changed points of view, tense, and narrative voice throughout without missing a beat. I think it is fun to do writing exercises with those things, and they definitely put certain limitations and freedoms on writing style, but I think other story elements are more important.

Usually I begin by either working on the hopes and fears of the character, or deciding what reversals I will have, or what the intention is. All three of those work very well. Many fantasy writers begin by building their settings, building their worlds. Let's try something different than all of these today.

Out of obstacles, stakes, and tactics I think that stakes is the clear choice for building a story. I am sure it is possible to start with an obstacle and then find what that could be an obstacle for, or have a person that is going to apply a certain tactic in any situation, but that sounds like a really contrived way of doing it. Maybe I will try those as an exercise another time.

What is at stake? What could be lost, or is being lost? It has to be something important, or does it? Can I have a story with low stakes? I guess I could, but I don't think I can have a compelling story with low stakes. A lot of people value life, love, their pets, their family, their money, their house, etc. What is something that could be a little unique? I like the idea of an object that other people might not think that much of, but has a particularly strong meaning for the character.

How about a pen? Not a very special looking pen, just a fairly normal pen. That would be easy to lose, hide, for someone to just use it, or throw it away. Now, why is the pen special, why is it worth something to the character? Wow, I find myself back at the normal things, the universal human desires. Being worth a lot of money only sounds like a really strong motivation if the character needs the money desperately for something else. Connected to a loved one, or a family member of some sort, that sounds good. A dead loved one, that sounds even better. This is starting to remind me a little bit of the motivation behind the revenge killings of John Wick, which is a good show, I will have to study that at some point. We need more details about this connection.

Who was connected to the pen? Maybe a lost parent/child connection. That would be strong. The parent knew about a child, but the child didn't know. When the parent was dying they wrote a letter to the child explaining the situation. That sounds pretty good, but how did the child get the pen? I think I have to go another direction.

Maybe the pen belongs to an adult, from something that happened to them as an adult. Some sort of signing could work well. Maybe signing a house, or a wedding certificate, or a loan, or a degree, or a business deal. Maybe signing themselves out of slavery, that could be pretty interesting. Maybe it's the signing of some kind of oath. I like the idea of signing something that has raised the social standing of the character to a new level and a new identity. I am surprised that I am not hitting on something that I really like. Maybe it's a ceremonial pen awarded for something. That might work. Which direction do I want to go with this, it could be political, business, or military. Maybe there are more options, but those are the ones that jumped out at me. The pen has to stand for someone or something. Freedom or honor sound pretty good. Maybe it is a family tradition. Maybe there is some kind of school or society that awards a pen, and it is a family tradition going back for generations to earn this award.

A lot of those ideas seem okay, but nothing seems to be compelling me to follow any of them. Maybe I just don't like trying to start a story from the position of what's at stake first. I am going to consider this particular journey into the unknown a lost expedition. Next time, I probably won't start with the stakes. You are welcome to see what happens at


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