What’s at Stake?

I’m working on a sequel to For the Good of the Realm. My writing process includes reading back over what I’ve written not just to avoid actual writing (though of course that happens) but to understand what I’m doing.

I am a pantser through and through, so I not only figure out where something is going while I’m writing, I also sometimes understand what it is I’m actually doing when I read back over the work and realize what I did.

I’m sure this description of my process will drive other writers nuts, especially those whose mind works in linear paths. I don’t recommend it, but I seem to be stuck with it. I rarely know what I’m doing until I actually do it and sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until long after I’ve done it.

Anyway, in my latest re-read, I came upon this bit of dialogue:

“But real adventures only happen when everything is at stake,” Asamir replied. “That is what makes them adventures.”

I love those sentences. (That’s another nice feature of my process: every once in awhile I discover I’ve written something that I find spectacular. Sometimes I even say, “Wow. I wrote that?”)

When I wrote those words, they were just a bit of dialogue thrown in after Anna, the main character, has explained to her friends Asamir and Cecile just how challenging their mission was going to be. But looking back at it, I think it addresses something that’s very crucial to writing a good adventure story:

Something important must be at stake.

As a reader, I think the idea that something important is at stake is crucial in all stories, not just adventure tales. In bleaker stories, the characters might fail; in horror they could – and sometimes do – lose everything. But even in stories that end happily – and that the reader knows will end happily – it’s important that the story convey the risk that they could go bad.

I’m beginning to suspect that this concept applies not just to the adventures the characters have, but to writing itself. That is, when I write something – when anyone writes something – everything should be at stake for the writer.

I’ve been taking a drawing class, and my teacher keeps encouraging us to draw dark lines. We’re all prone to draw too lightly, perhaps as a way of not committing to a piece.

But you have to take the risk of making things stand out in whatever kind of art you’re doing, whether it’s writing or drawing or dancing or music or any art form.

You have to commit. Something has to be at stake.

On social media, my friend Cat Rambo shared a post from another writer, Gabino Iglesias:

If you’re writing and hear a little voice inside your head say “I think you’re going too far,” that’s a sign that you should go farther.

I’m starting to think that’s how you put everything at stake.

Go farther. Push the limit. Do more with it.

Surprise your readers.

Hell, surprise yourself.

Much as I like this concept as both a reader and creator, I balk at it in real life. In these times of polycrisis, when every election is a cliffhanger and no one is sufficiently addressing climate change or fundamental wealth inequality (just to mention two major issues), I find myself craving a time when nothing much is at stake.

But maybe the reason why something important needs to be at stake in a story and why artists need to take risks with what they create is because we all know – fundamentally – that something is always at stake in real life.

I’d rather write it or read about it, though.

2 thoughts on “What’s at Stake?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *