This is a post about boobs.
You have been warned.
One thing I’ve noticed over the past few months as I’ve become a more discerning reader, as I’ve read friends’ manuscripts, and now as I’ve started reading for Awesome Agent, is that thing everyone talks about — raising the stakes.
And you know what? It’s true, what I’ve seen editors say: We don’t do it enough.
For a long time, raising the stakes was like show, don’t tell for me. I saw everyone talking about these things, I understood that they were somehow important, but I didn’t understand their full meaning. I now understand show, don’t tell after many painstaking hours of trying to wrap my brain around the intricate do’s and don’ts of that rule. And I also now finally understand raise the stakes.
For a long time, I thought, “Raise the stakes? Um. Der. Put your main characters through a messload of crap. I got it. I do that. Go away.”
But then I understood — we’ve got to not only put our characters through a messload of crap; we’ve got to do that, drag ‘em across a bed of hot glass shards, dangle ‘em over the edge of a volcano, pluck off their fingers, break their hearts into pieces, burn their homes to the ground and then make ‘em fight their way through an inferno to get out, all while holding a dagger to the throat of whatever they love most in the world.
They should get to the point of no return, the point where it seems all hope is lost, before finally digging in their heels and saying, “Enough.” If they don’t get to that rock-bottom point, then their fight back to the top, their journey to an ultimate triumph, won’t be the catharsis it should be.
I finally understood this when I started thinking about boobs the other day. Don’t get all giggly, you pervs. I was getting dressed up to go out and got irritated because a shirt that looked wholly innocuous on the rack…wasn’t. The neckline wasn’t necessarily plunging, but I felt like it was. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and kinda skanky.
Now, see, I can see other women wearing shirts with plunging necklines, and I’m like, “Well done. You’re rockin’ it. You WEAR that plunging neckline, sistah. REPRESENT.” These people look perfectly fine and non-skanky.
But I have this paralyzing fear that I can’t pull off anything other than a modest cut without looking like, as we called it back in my middle school days, a “hoochie mama.”
Other people can pull it off. They look pretty and classy, whereas I just feel stupid and like I’m trying too hard, when all I’m really trying to do is feel pretty and happy in a nice top.
So, as I’m sitting there the other day, trying to decide whether or not I should just say, “Screw this low-cut top, I’m putting on a T-shirt,” I realized something.
Raising the stakes = wearing a shirt with a plunging neckline.
Playing it safe = wearing a T-shirt.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with playing it safe. We have to give our characters some happy, chill moments, otherwise the noteworthy, traumatic moments have no impact. We have to wear T-shirts on occasion because it makes the moments we dress up that much more special, fun, and memorable.
There’s nothing wrong with raising the stakes, either. We can’t let ourselves get scared of donning that shirt with the plunging neckline. We can’t let ourselves think we’ll look like we’re trying too hard, or like we’re somehow bad for doing this. We can’t let ourselves think that other people can pull it off, but we can’t.
You think you’ve made it hard for your character? Make it harder.
You think you’ve pushed your character to his/her limits? Push them farther.
You think you’ve broken your character’s heart, determination, and will to keep fighting? Break them. Again and again.
We can’t let ourselves be afraid to take risks, to send our characters (and our necklines) plummeting. That doubt that creeps into our heads, that uncertainty of “Is this too much? Too far? Too edgy?” That fear that the neckline is too low?
Other people pull it off. Other people push their characters to the brink and off it, making us gasp and shake our heads and admiringly wonder how they ever dared do it.
Be that person. Push your characters. Push them until they fall, crack, shatter. Push them past the point of reason, to the point where you have to stop and think, “No way. I can’t do this. It’s too much. It’s outrageous.”
Don’t be afraid of raising the stakes.
Don’t be afraid of the plunging neckline.