Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog, about raising the stakes for your protagonist in order to keep readers hooked — thus avoiding the reader deciding to DNF your book.
But what storytelling elements should you focus on?
I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.
With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.
Read the whole thing, if you feel so inclined. I don’t disagree — sure, it’s important to produce tension and yes, high stakes are important. High in emotional terms; in a romance, the protagonist(s) are probably not saving the world, so there’s low stakes in that sense, but high stakes personally.
Anyway, sure, high stakes and rising tension, good in principle.
I’m not completely sure I’ve ever DNF’ed a book because of low stakes. I don’t quite remember that ever happening. Don’t get me wrong; I think the advice in the post is pretty good advice. Like this:
The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.
However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.
That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.
I think this is very true, and in fact not so long ago I re-wrote a scene in which a lot of people died, in order to let the reader focus on just one of those people. Instant increase in pathos of the scene by about 100x, because the death of one character you know is much more powerful than the death of several hundred characters you’ve never met.
However! I still don’t think I’ve ever abandoned a book because of low stakes. For me, I think it’s nearly always lack of investment in the protagonist, grading into active dislike of the protagonist.
It’s too-gritty worldbuilding. If the author mentions urine, feces, or vomit in the first pages, then the story is probably not for me. The wrong kind of mutilated beggar sitting by the side of the road, a gibbet with a decomposed body and carrion flies . . . no. I DNF’ed a book a year or two ago because it opened with young losers taking drugs and experiencing weird effects, and nothing at all about that scene worked for me. Ugh.
Don’t get me wrong: I can handle some grittiness, but not up front like that. I am much more likely to tolerate it later, after I already care about the protagonist and the story.
Boredom with the stakes . . . I cannot offhand remember setting a book on the DNF pile for that particular sin. Lack of interest in the protagonist or being turned off by the worldbuilding: those are the things that make that happen.
Oh, one more thing: if the actual sentence-level writing is not very good, then I probably won’t get too far into the book in the first place.
Okay, a top-five-turnoffs list:
- Stakes too low; story not exciting enough
- Protagonist boring or actively repulsive
- Worldbuilding too gritty
- Sentence-level writing not that great
- Dog dies
What is most likely to make you abandon a book you’ve started? One of those, or something else?