Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Theme-Worldbuilding Integration Part 15 - What Is At Stake

Theme-Worldbuilding Integration
Part 15
What Is At Stake
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Previous entries in this series can be found here:


Most writers would assume that "What Is At Stake?" is a PLOT question.

And yes, it actually is a plot question.  The two plot forms that demand the stakes be clear in the writer's mind are:

A) Johnny Gets His Fanny Caught In A Beartrap And Has His Adventures Getting It Out.

B) A Likeable Hero Surmounts Overwhelming Odds Toward A Worthwhile Goal.

Writers generally think of these as "the beartrap story" and the "Quest story."

Many teach this as

There are only two plots in all of literature:
1) A person goes on a journey.
2) A stranger comes to town.

Or as the classic set of 7 Plots outlined in Wikipedia:

The division into a person goes vs a person comes is not PLOT at all, but SITUATION - a component of plot, as I use the term plot.

The list of 7 is a mixture of genre/mood and Goals (not always worthwhile).

The difference between these two lists and what I'm talking about in these blogs is point of view.

Those lists are concocted by reading what has been written.  Looking in from the outside of the writer's mind leaves the writing student without a clue about HOW to do it - how to plot, how to take the story boiling over inside the mind and lay it out in a narrative with one thing after another, thus engrossing the reader.

I'm talking about the mechanics of doing the writing salable in a commercially driven marketplace. Those lists are talking about the nature of humanity that makes us want to consume stories.

Thus the classic Science Fiction plots - Beartrap and Quest - are helpful to the writer of Science Fiction Romance.

For Romance genre the two classic Science Fiction plot-forms can be transformed into "Love At First Sight" (the beartrap) and "Me! Me! Me! Pick Me, Not Him!" (the Quest to Win The Heart)

Love at First Sight usually strikes when you can least afford to be diverted from a career path.  That creates natural conflict.

Romance where the main character's goal is to "win the heart" of a particular person qualifies as a Quest plot.

In the Beartrap plot, the stakes are whatever has been prevented by stepping into the Beartrap (a career, acceptance at a particular college, maybe even your Religion.)

In the Quest plot, the stakes are the goal of the quest, which in Romance are the coveted words, "I do."

Note that in either plot form, the key to making the story interesting to a specific readership is the choice of the Stakes.  What does the main character stand to lose, and what does the main character stand to win?  What is at stake in the game of life?

So it is not just a plot question -- but also a commercial marketing question.  Who would read this story?

How do you figure out what the stakes in the story you want to tell must be to attract the reader you want to attract?

Sometimes the story idea comes to you as the stakes, as the objective or the potential loss.

If you start with a knowledge of the stakes, chances are your subconscious has already built the entire world around your characters, and your job is to tease that integrated conception apart into a sequence of information to feed the reader in a way that makes sense and builds suspense.

But sometimes "the stakes" is the very last decision a writer has to make.  Everything else is clear in your mind's eye, so you start to write and discover you have no idea what the stakes are, or what audience would be fascinated by playing for those stakes.

When that happens, it helps to rephrase the question from "What is at stake?" to "What is this story about?"

The "stakes" should symbolize the theme (theme is what the story is about).  The stakes would be a concrete, visualizable representation of the epistemological statement your theme makes.

That statement is your theme, and everything (every detail and every functioning part) of a novel is derived from the theme.  (Or vice-versa, the theme is derived from the details that popped into your head.)

The Theme is evident in the "world" you build behind your characters.

You can write Contemporary Romance that is Science Fiction, as Gini Koch's Alien Series clearly demonstrates (yes, you must read that series).

So to discover what is at stake, what might be lost or what might be gained at what price, the writer has to examine what this romance novel is to say about life, the universe and everything.

For this exercise, let's focus on a common, pervasive thematic issue in our world today, Risk.

Risk Management is a core issue in everyone's life today.  No matter what readership you are going for, those readers are in angst over RISK.

Writers consider the abstracts, pick a thematic statement, and make that abstract concept into a concrete but distantly "other" world for the reader.

Fiction, as I've said in the books on Tarot,

is the alphabet of the left hand -- of the non-linear part of the brain that deals in gestalt imaging.

"The Stakes" is the concrete representation of an abstract concept.  "The Stakes" are a symbol of the Main Character's subconscious values, or possibly only fears.

You can choose "the stakes" by fleshing out your character in a character sketch.  If your subconscious has already completed the worldbuilding behind that character, you will stumble upon the stakes he/she is gambling.

But what do you do if you are asked for a story, or have a novel under contract with a deadline, and your subconscious has not done the work to concoct The Stakes?

One remarkably effective ploy is to go scan the day's headlines looking for a major issue of deep concern to your intended audience.  What matters in your reader's everyday life?

We examined ripping fictional material from factual (and not necessarily so factual) Headlines in many previous posts, notably:



Tabloids are great for this exercise.

If you can find a set of Headlines apparently on different topics, but all about problems stemming from a single cultural, legal, or Values issue, you may have found the Theme you can derive Stakes from.

A look at the headlines from May 2016 gives a good set of examples.

Just on The Hill website, we have a whole set of articles on the TSA and long wait lines, congressional hearings, and what to do about it all.




And on May 31, 2016, a heightened threat level for all Europe was announced, especially large public gatherings such as sports matches. Just going on vacation can be accepting a Risk.

Obviously, voters are upset with the flight delays by the TSA wait lines, so law makers do what they were hired to do -- spend money.  It is the only tool they have, so they use it on all problems. Spending more money than you have income creates a Risk - it is a gamble that income will appear before the debt is due.  The Stakes is all about The Risk.

Each of the air travelers caught in the massive delays has something uniquely their own at stake, and more to lose beyond that one thing.

For example, being late for a vacation reservation may mean forfeiting a night's lodging costs, but it might also mean disappointing a treasured child by not turning up at their graduation, and that might mean the kid went off and got drunk partying, got into a car crash, and is responsible for a death for the rest of their life.

An incident like that could make wonderful "backstory" for a Main Character.  The same might happen if the hapless passenger misses his plane because of a sudden Love At First Sight -- whereupon he stops to rescue damsel in distress who may not want rescuing.

The ostensible 'stakes' can be just catching a plane, train or bus "in time."  The ramifications of winning or losing those stakes can support an entire series of novels.

The clever writer will look at the TSA mess, and try to find what it has in common with other headlined boondoggles plaguing the target readership.

Take the current Presidential Election, for example. We have the usual 3 Parties fielding candidates -- Libertarian, Democrat, and Republican.  After a year of jockeying for position, we have 3 sets of President-Vice President contenders.  None of them suit anything like the electorate's concept of an ideal person for the job in these times.

So what is a Character you have invented to be your voter to do?  How does the Character make this decision?  What themes would fit such a novel, set in the "world" of "reality."

Think of a Contemporary Romance.  As a writer, you know you must do just as much worldbuilding to create a Contemporary Romance as you do to write a space-adventure Fantasy or Science Fiction novel.  The "reality" you create for your characters resembles the reader's everyday reality but it is not reality.

Just as dialogue is not the way real people really speak, but must have verisimilitude (must resemble the way people talk, but still advance the plot and story apace), so too does your worldbuilding require a resemblance to reality.  Here is the index to posts on dialogue.


Real-reality just does not work in text based fiction because the reader has to "visualize" that world, injecting their own artistic twist on your work, using your work as a template to create their own story.

Therefore a Contemporary Science Fiction Romance writer has to create a "Reality Template" against which to tell the story.

So you take a pair of Characters and depict them against the backdrop of your selective representation of the reader's Reality -- your Japanese Brush painting that merely suggests so they can imagine.  We covered that process in the series on Depicting.


You have created a pair of Characters embedded in a semblance of the reader's Reality, and this new pairing is living through a period of Political Hot Potatoe Games -- where politicians are jockeying for position, slinging mud, creating "straw man" opponents and using the names (or lurid nicknames) of the real nominees of the opposition parties.  Be sure not to depict something too "real" as lawsuits can happen to writers and publishing contracts hang the entire liability on the writer.

Now each of your pair of Characters have decisions to make.  "Do I know enough to form an opinion?"  "If I don't know enough, should I vote anyway?"  "Which bozo clown should I vote for, or against?"  And what about down-ballot?  Can I offset the impossible choice by picking opposition candidates for House and Senate?  What if I'm wrong?

Suppose both your Characters are comitted to voting "responsibly" -- maybe they are even working for this or that Campaign going door to door (and that's how they meet?).  Each is completely wound up in the details of their choices-- but of course, if this is a genuine romance novel, they will start out supporting different Candidates.

So, with "reality" as your template, you do not have much worldbuilding to do, and with a political campaign as the plot framework, you have a focus for your Theme, which is dictated somewhat by the Romance Genre theme -- Love Conquers All.

The "All" that gets conquered here would be a Political Disagreement.  Since this blog is about science fiction/fantasy/paranormal Romance, we can assume the two Candidates the new lovers are supporting have an "issue" difference that hinges on something scientific and/or paranormal.

For example, one Candidate might support the Space Program, but not support N.A.S.A. (say, for example the private company that wants to put a colony on Mars).  The opposition might support N.A.S.A. but leash it with appropriations earmarks such that it can never launch a colonizing attempt, or support N.A.S.A. in such a way as to destroy civilian entreprenuership in space because Space must controlled by the government.

Neither of your Lovers would have all the facts at the beginning of your novel, and neither would be prominent enough at the beginning for their influence to sway large numbers of voters.  At the beginning of the story and the plot, the Stakes are just personal, a matter of personal integrity and honor, possibly just opinion.

To do this novel as a Fantasy Genre, the argument might be over government funding for cross-dimensional exploration -- sending an explorer into a parallel universe.

To do this novel as a Paranormal, perhaps one of the Candidates has a lurid past as a Ghost Hunter, or maybe he or she is a telepath or empath with great power to sway the opinions of huge crowds (who then stay swayed).

The Reality Matrix is Contemporary Political Campaign, and the Romance sub-genre is chosen by the issue -- science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal.

So ostensibly, at the opening of the novel, "the stakes" for each of your Lovers Stories would be "Who Becomes President?" If the wrong person wins, the Passionate Personal Project will be put off for a generation or more.

In science fiction and fantasy genres, long series are the norm, so you don't have to resolve all the conflicts in Book I.

Notice how The Theme, Love Conquers All, suggests that the writer has to reach for an "All" that is ostensibly un-conquerable, then show how it could happen that Love could conquer that particular "All."

Personally, I have seen marriages break up over politics.  The arguments become too fundamentally passionate.  But such novels are hard to write as Romances because Love spurs Characters to want to discovery "why" the "other" thinks so stupidly and "correct" that errant behavior by "informing" them.

Note how, in developing this approach to finding "the stakes" for this novel here, we have sifted and focused down to a handful of possible themes.

Having chosen the LOVE CONQUERS ALL theme with its underlying premise of HAPPILY EVER AFTER IS REALISTIC, and cast that against the Contemporary Romance genre, added in "Ripped From The Headlines" politics, we now have a very specific novel series emerging.

Yes, it resembles Gini Koch's ALIEN Series, but is distinctively different.

Note how the political positions of the candidates the Characters are supporting define "the stakes."  Maybe one of the young Lovers has set heart on being a member of the Mars Colony team?  "The Stakes" then become very personal, the future career of that Character.  Maybe the other Character chooses to support the opposing Candidate because Humankind has virtually ruined this world and has no right to go ruin Mars, too.  "The Stakes" for that character is the future of Earth's Ecology.

If people think they can easily escape Earth's ecological crash by just moving into space, they won't spend the resources and focus genius on fixing Earth, so all routes of escape must be cut off.  The Stakes Are Too High.

If people think Humanity can survive the current Species Die-Off we are in, and we can't, it will be too late to establish colonies in space and Humanity dies.  The Stakes Are Too High.

And there is your core theme for this type of Contemporary Science Fiction Romance-Politics: THE STAKES ARE TOO HIGH.

Thematically, The Stakes Are Too High is based on a bundle of assumptions, each of which needs a Character in the novel to live out an illustration of what if that assumption is correct or what if it is not correct.   The single classic short story everyone remembers that pulls this trick off exceptionally well is titled The Cold Equations.

Note how much this story is studied, and what a classic piece it is (non-Romance).


Here it is on wikipedia.


I could argue each and every point academics and even fans make about this story, but one point is not arguable.  It is exactly what a short story should be -- memorable, and full of unanswerable questions posed in a way that seems clear, but isn't.

Pull off a thematic trick like that with a series of Romance novels about Politics, and you could generate a Black Swan Event, an Overton Window Event in World Politics -- some 30 or 60 years after publication. We now have a space station, so this story's scenario which was not possible when it was written (except as a lost-at-sea-story) is actually possible today.

One of the rules of screenwriting is "Raise The Stakes" on the correct "beat" -- that is along the plot line, you come to a point (located by which structure you are using, 3 or 4 Act) when the writer "reveals" what more is at stake -- what happens if the Hero fails?  What happens if the villain wins? What can be lost and what would that loss mean?

You, the writer, must "draw the reader" into the story by making it clear what the loss would mean.  That imagining of the Character's possible future creates suspense, and is in fact the very definition of "suspense."

What Will Happen Next?

That's what "the stakes" are all about.  In Romance, the stakes are "Happily Ever After" -- who gets to be Happy?  How do the Characters go from the Beginning to the Happily Ever After end?  What has to CHANGE?

Plot is the sequence of Events that Change of Situation.

Story is the reason why the Characters feel this or that way about the Events of the Plot -- and therefore, the reason why (motive) the Character acts in response to the Event in a particular way.

The STAKES are the symbolism ...
has a list of previous posts on Symbolism including "Why Do We Cry At Weddings?"...

...by which the writer explains to the reader what exactly is motivating the Character -- explains by depicting the subconscious motive that the Character does not even know is driving him/her.  This creates suspense in the story-line because the Reader is rooting for the Character to "see" what the reader "sees" inside the Character.  At some point in the story-arc, the writer must create the "epiphany" where the Character sees what the reader has seen.  In Romance, that shock usually results in the "I Love You" statement.

Character Motivation is subconscious to the Character. Story takes place in the Character's Subconscious, running parallel and tandem with the physical real-world Events on the Plot Line.

As emotional responses in the subconscious change, the character "arcs" changing their opinion and ideas, their evaluations of given concrete realities, and Values.  Values are the hierarchy by which people sort out The Stakes into more important and less important all the way down to discarding as Unimportant.  We throw away everything for Love.

So, if you've chosen to do a Contemporary Science Fiction Romance set amidst a Political Campaign where the Issue of the Day is either Space Travel or just "How To Fund And Thus Control Space Travel?" the plot driving Conflict will be the disagreement between your Lovers over which course, and thus which Candidate, is the better choice.

If The Wedding takes place in Chapter One, and then they discover they disagree as the Campaigns get rolling - you have one kind of novel.  The middle could be filing for Divorce, and the Ending could be getting re-married.

If The Wedding takes place in the Middle, where they have decided their Love is more important than politics, the Ending is at the filing for Divorce -- and the sequel developes their new Romance (likely via two triangle Relationships).

If The Wedding takes place at the End of volume 1, Volume 2 begins with one or both climbing the political campaign ladder, maybe becoming delegates to the State Conventions, maybe the National Convention, maybe the Electoral College.  Maybe running for Congress or Senate themselves, both winning, and opposing each other across the House and/or Senate Floors -- and more sequels where they run against each other for President and/or Vice President (though Gini Koch pre-empted that scenario, so you should think of something different).

You could go international intrigue and stage a fight over planting flags of Nations on various planets and moons in our solar system -- claiming possession in the name of a Nation.  Or you could do the same with, say, the United Nations Flag and a joint effort to plant it everywhere.

Maybe one of your Lovers is devoted to the United Nations and one world government, and the other is a Nationalist, Protectionist type, who sees such large and diverse masses of humans as un-governable.

Which path you choose will depend on The Stakes.

Since we are positing science fiction romance as the genre, note that in Science Fiction the Main Character is generally The Hero, usually on The Hero's Journey (look that book up if you don't know it).  Star Wars began with Luke Skywalker embarking on a typical Hero's Journey which is why it played to such a broad audience, not just space-adventure fans.

The Likable Hero surmounts overwhelming odds toward a worthwhile goal.

The worthwhile goal is The Stakes.  What if you don't make it?

You don't make it to the goal, you lose The Stakes.  What then?

In solving any problem, particularly High Stakes Adventure, every choice the Character makes has to be in consideration of THE RISK.

That's what "The Stakes" means -- what if you lose?  What can be lost? What do you do then?

For example, suppose you open the story with your Female Lead Character being kidnapped by a rapist, held at knife-point and assaulted.  She has to figure out what The Stakes really are.  The classic advice is to just lie still and enjoy it because rapists rarely actually murder the victim afterwards.  So thinking the Stakes are just your virginity, you might decide not to fight.

But thinking the Stakes are your actual life, you might decide to fight which shows the reader she is one kind of person, or she might decide to cower, which shows she is another sort of person.  In either case, more choices have to be made.  What move can you make that might succeed?  What are the odds of pulling it off?  What happens if you strike out and fail to frighten him off?  What if you cower, and that just invites more cruelty?

What if you get pregnant by this bozo?  More decisions. The Stakes Are Raised.

Calculating the odds, taking The Risk, is what the Hero (male or female) does.  The Hero Acts.

Classic wisdom says that the one who just "reacts" is always the loser.

Initiating Action is the signature of the Winner (not necessarily of The Good Guy).

Science Fiction is about heroic action in the Highest Stakes Games -- life or death, the survival of an entire species, -- using weapons such as star-killers or planet busters -- or simply about solving problems by disrupting the assumptions of the adversary with something like a new scientific discovery.

One historic example is the use of the Atomic Bomb to end World War II.  That was an Overton Window Event.  It was done at enormous risk.  The horror of it could have caused the world to destroy the United States.  Or the bombs might not have actually exploded as planned.  The plane carrying them might have crashed at sea (lots of planes crashed at sea in those days; planes weren't as dependable as they are now.)

Writing engrossing fiction requires making the Character's attitude toward The Stakes and the Risk (both upside and downside Risk -- sometimes a Win is a Pyrrhic Victory) very clear to the reader.

That does not mean spelling out in excruciating detail all the Character's thoughts during this Calculation of Risk.

Good writing is all about Show Don't Tell.  Make the reader figure out what the Character is thinking, and the Reader will easily believe it and become engrossed.  So the Character's calculation about Risk is shown-not-told to the Reader by Symbolism.

The Symbolism chosen by the writer is derived from the Theme and the Reader derives the panorama of the world behind the story from the Symbol chosen.

Thus an heirloom Ruby necklace might be the symbol of a Throne at Risk, or a Heritage to be discovered (such as finding an ancestor who died at Treblinka.

In the case of a Political Campaign, or Lovers working on different campaigns, a slogan placard might be the Symbol of The Stakes.  Or it might be a YouTube video depicting what will happen to Earth if this or that Candidate does not win.  Are You Willing To Risk This?  Scare-tactics, it is usually called.  Fear mongering is used because it works.

Then of course there is the temptation of manufacture evidence to "prove" that fear of this, or risk of that is "real."  That can "thicken" a plot, especially where the rivals are on different political sides.

The thematic choices for political science fiction might include:

1) Government exists for the purpose of keeping everyone inside its borders safe.  Life should be lived without risk. (see above mentioned TSA articles)

2) Government exists for the purpose of keeping everyone inside its borders well informed of  risks.  Life should be lived for the sake of personally choosen risks and accepting consequences of one's own choices.

The Stakes are Life -- a lifetime, or at least decades, of predictability or unpredictability.

Science Fiction adventure heroes usually choose to take Risks, as do Fantasy Heroes.  Consider Bilbo Baggins.

Adventure means living on the edge, calculating risk and plunging toward a goal, like Captain Kirk in ST:ToS.

For one theme, the Worthwhile Goal is Safety -- what makes the goal worthwhile is the achievement of a NO RISK situation.

For the other theme, the Worthwhile Goal is Moving the Overton Window, creating the Black Swan Event, the event that changes the way everyone thinks about everything.  What makes that goal Worthwhile is the Risk Itself -- the idea that everything depends on you, yourself, all by yourself, and if you fail you have nobody to blame but yourself.

There is one school that believes that Life=Change.  That is, if you take no risks, you are not alive.  Or put another way, Life can not be lived without risk, and pain and suffering are just part of the process of change.

There is another school that believes that a risk free life is a human right.  Safety is the only worthwhile goal.

These two basic views each form the basis of political definitions of The Stakes in an election.

Exploration of Space or another Dimension would be taking a risk, and The Stakes would be human survival, just as in the Kidnap-Rape scenario it is the survival of an individual.

Calculate whether action or inaction has the lesser Risk.  Then choose.  One school chooses the greater Risk because of the greater reward; the other school chooses the lesser Risk because "A Bird In The Hand Is Worth Two In The Bush."

You see these two attitudes toward Life in child rearing (to let Johnny go swimming or not), in Investing (get out of the Market because it's going to crash), in starting a business (to buy a Franchise or go Indie), or schooling (drop out of college to start Microsoft in a garage), or deciding whether to hold the Olympics in a Zika infested country.

What risks are you willing to take for The Stakes of Happily Ever After?

When you choose The Stakes your protagonists are playing for, be sure the Stakes symbolize your thematic statement about the place of Risk Taking in your reader's world.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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