Braving the Plunging Neckline (or, The Importance of Raising the Stakes)

9 Feb

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.

We can.

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?

It’s not.

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.”

It’s not.

Don’t be afraid of raising the stakes.

Don’t be afraid of the plunging neckline.

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21 Responses to “Braving the Plunging Neckline (or, The Importance of Raising the Stakes)”

  1. Serena February 9, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    You’re so cute I could die. Not many people could compare writing to cleavage and get away with it. I feel all empowered to go out and wear some low-cut top just BECAUSE I CAN, MAN!

    I get your point, all the same. Sometimes I’m far too fond of my characters that “killing my darlings” seems like an impossible task. We need to be ruthless for the good of the story.

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 10:48 am #

      Hee hee, I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Serena dear! :D

      You’re absolutely right that there’s a danger inherent in the ties we form with our characters. We love them like we would our own children — of COURSE we do — but, unlike our children, we have to want to put ‘em through hell, and that can be difficult. We have to be sadistic for the sake of our storytelling, and sometimes we want to, but…sometimes we don’t. And we have to anyway.

  2. Kendra February 9, 2011 at 9:53 am #

    Love it, sistah! We have to grind those characters into dust, reconstitute them and then put them in a tank full of hungry sharks. That makes for good, interesting fiction. Katniss Everdeen lost almost EVERYTHING SHE LOVED by the end of book 3, and that made her redemption bittersweet. Writing fiction is the only acceptable chance we have to be truly mean–and giggle evilly about it. Bwa ha ha!

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 10:46 am #

      Yeah, you know, I was thinking about Katniss a lot while writing this. Collins CERTAINLY wasn’t afraid to put Katniss through every kind of crapstorm of crap she could think up. And, referring to Kait’s comment below, sometimes, it got to be a little too much for me. As much as I appreciate Mockingjay on an intellectual level, I’m not sure that I enjoyed it, simply because that redemption you speak of…I’m not really sure it was. To me, in that series, Katniss sort of approached what Kait aptly termed “the Mary Sue of tortured characters.” Things just kept getting worse and worse, and there wasn’t a lot of satisfying catharsis at the story’s conclusion. And, while part of me knows that was probably Collins’ point, to starkly and unapologetically convey the evils of war, I wonder if that could have been without putting Katniss through quite so much. Of course, that happens in real life sometimes. It ain’t always fair, and it ain’t always pretty, and, likewise, there ain’t an easy answer to this debate. It’s certainly interesting to think about! CAN you raise the stakes TOO high?

      • Kendra February 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

        I do agree with that–I was let down by Katniss’s redemption. She settled for Peeta (I’m a Peeta-shipper, so that “settling” made me mad–she should’ve been thrilled to see him, ahem) and yet, she was still broken. I get broken, but not so broken her joy was utterly gone. There needs to be a sweet, silver lining that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.

      • Kait Nolan February 9, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

        Okay Kendra, here’s a thought (now I have not read the Hunger Games books, so I’m thinking generically), do you think that we hopeless romantics and romance lovers have a higher requirement for that kind of thing than other readers?

      • Kendra February 9, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

        @Kait….I don’t know, honestly. I do find myself annoyed with “ironedy” stories (the hero loses, usually in love, like “Up in the Air” with George Clooney). I can handle a good tragedy, but I want it to be a noble loss, I guess. For Mockingjay, I more reacted to Katniss’s 180 in character…she was very “un-Katniss” in the end, almost too much. So in that respect, I think I can handle it (even as a hopeless romantic–guilty as charged! : D) if the character stays intact. Lord knows I like to abuse my characters, but I do almost always give them some semblance of a happy ending, too.

      • Claire February 9, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

        Oh, how I LOVE Up In the Air. I actually appreciated how they didn’t get together in the end, because, I mean, sometimes that happens. And, yes, that was my major beef with Mockingjay. There was no catharsis, it was just basically her giving up. And, yeah, that happens, too. But after everything she had been through, it was just really hard to take.

  3. Lauralynn Elliott February 9, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Because I’m, um, well endowed, I get enough attention drawn to my boobs without adding more attention. LOL

    Seriously, we really shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances with our characters. They shouldn’t be perfect, and things should happen to them. I say go for it! :0)

    Love this post!

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 10:42 am #

      I can empathize, girl. I’m also, um, well-endowed, which makes the whole cleavage dilemma even worse. Oy. But that shouldn’t stop us from throwing caution to the wind and donning that deep scoop-neck blouse, amirite??

      Thank you for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed! :)

  4. Kait Nolan February 9, 2011 at 10:15 am #

    This was another one of those posts that made me glad I wasn’t actively consuming a beverage. The warning that it was a post about boobs was much appreciated and prevented necessary laptop screen clean up from spew. GREAT analogy by the way.

    I used to have problems torturing my characters. I hated to be mean (Mama trained me not to be). Then I hit the 9 Year Book. The book that haunted me from the time I started college, to the year or two after grad school where I’d work, change, delete, change, rewrite…I abused the hell out of that heroine and it’s like it got me over the hump. Whipping them gets easier with practice. I’m not gonna analyze what that might say about me…

    But you’re absolutely right in that the ending is not NEARLY as satisfying if they have not nearly lost all.

    That being said, sometimes I wonder if you can be too horrible. Like creating some awesome valedictorian cheerleader who loses her looks, her job, becomes a drug addict, has some close family member murdered, loses a leg, and has her dog get hit by a car. The Mary Sue of tortured characters. I’ve never gone that far (no dogs will ever be injured in my work), but sometimes I think there is an issue with believability that THAT MUCH bad stuff can happen to one person, you know?

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 10:40 am #

      I think it’s less about how much bad stuff you do to your characters, and more about what you do. You’re right that there is a danger in turning your character into “the Mary Sue of tortured characters” (well put). People are just as likely to roll their eyes about too many hardships as they are about too many good things. So, you shouldn’t go down this list of “bad things that can happen to people” and make sure you put your character through all of those. Rather, you have to think about what would make your particular character hurt the most. What would the absolute worst thing that could happen to this character, or the worst thing for this character to have threatened? Then, do it, threaten it. It’s not about quantity of struggles; it’s about quality of struggle. I think the ideal is probably a lot of little obstacles that the character learns to overcome — followed by the worst thing ever, which breaks the character, and up from which they have to pull themselves, bit by bit.

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Oh, and you’re welcome for the boob disclaimer. ;)

  5. abby mumford February 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm #

    this is an awesome post. raising the stakes is something i am constantly thinking about, but you articulate it oh so well here.

    and with the cleveage analogy, you may have just raised the stakes of your blog. and by stakes, i mean viewership, and by viewership, i mean people searching for things other than writing advice… way to snare them with your witty wisdom instead!

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

      Haha, I actually thought about what this post would do to the types of hits my blog got. Luckily, I haven’t seen anything untoward as of yet. ;D

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! It’s something I’m always thinking about, too. Happy writing!

  6. ashelynn sanford February 9, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Love this post. Makes me think of TAWHK and my circus idea. I freaking love you and this post. <333

    • Claire February 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

      I freaking love YOU. And I really really want to read TAWHK and your circus story. So, what I’m saying is, you’d better be writing right now! :D

  7. andrewmocete February 11, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    Man, I’ve never wanted boobs so much in well . . . ever. The only way I can compete is with a plunging waste line and that IS NOT the kind of stake raising I’m prepared for. In my writing, I can do that and you’ve expressed why beautifully. As a wise man once said, “Buffy sad, great show. Buffy happy, maybe not so much.”


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