Who Moved My Stakes?

The first chapter of a novel is supposed to establish the following:

1) Character: who is the story about?

2) Setting: where does it take place?

3) Goal: what does the main character want?

4) Conflict: who or what is going to stop them from getting #3?

5) Stakes: what will they lose if they don’t get #3?

I used to think the order in which these appeared was irrelevant, so when I wrote the first chapter of my latest novel, I started with character, then established the conflict and setting, and then ended with the goal and the stakes. Presto bingo, I thought I was done. But then the feedback starting coming in. One reviewer said she completely missed the stakes. I left them where they were but added more emphasis. Done again. But then some other reviewers told me that my main character wasn’t likeable and I was honestly shocked.  To me, the stakes justified her attitude and thus I couldn’t understand why anyone would think this.

That’s when a brilliant freelance editor pointed out my problem: my stakes were too late. According to her, I should have established character first, setting second, goal and stakes next, and conflict last. Why? I will try to explain by example.

Sarah works at an investment firm in Boston. She walks to work every day. She wakes up one morning and sees that it is pouring rain. She realizes that she forgot her umbrella at work. She has an important meeting that day and can’t show up looking wet.

What is wrong with the scenario? The stakes (important meeting) come too late. In order for the “she forgot her umbrella at work” to make you say “oh crap,” you need to know about the meeting first. Otherwise, the “oh crap” is coming as a flashback after the goal/stakes and thus has less effect. This is less obvious when the two are literally next to each other, but imagine that you have several pages in between. You read pages and pages about the rain and Sarah’s job and you’re just thinking, “Just get a damn umbrella woman!” You may not even finish the chapter because you think Sarah is a twit and the new episode of Glee is on. If you do finish it, by the time you get to the forgotten umbrella, you are probably thinking, “Well, you should have told me that FIRST!” In the reverse, if you knew about the missing umbrella before the rain or the important meeting, you might actually care how Sarah is going to make it to work without getting wet. And that would be your hook.

Category: On Writing