How to Raise the Stakes in the First 50 Pages of Your Novel
By author Jeff Gerke (The First 50 Pages).
After successfully engaging the reader, which is Job 1 of writing a novel, Job 2 is to create suspense. When your reader is engaged with your hero and your story world, you can afford to coast along a bit before that engagement begins to diminish (not that you would intentionally do so). But before too long you're going to need to continue reeling in the reader. He won't stay with you for the whole book if he gets bored after the opening.
Suspense means different things for different novelists-and different genres. If you're writing a thriller, you'd better have a roller coaster going pretty much from Page 1. If you're writing a romance, the suspense is likely driven by whether or not the hero and heroine will finally get together-it's of the will she or won't she variety. In an action/adventure, suspense might be in finding out if the hero will save the world or achieve his dream.
But no matter what type of novel you're writing, there had better be some kind of suspense in it. The reader must be asking, "How will this turn out?"-a question preferably followed by: "I have to find out, and I can't go to bed until I do!"
Some suspense will be created simply by engaging the reader with the main character. We keep reading because we want to see if he reaches his objective, whatever that may be.
Another surge of suspense will be generated when you introduce the villain-that equal and opposite force that's going to cause fits for your hero. The mere presence of a person who stands to hurt our hero in some way will raise our excruciatingly wonderful anxiety. And excruciatingly wonderful anxiety would be a very nice definition of suspense. We can't stand it, but we love it.
Let's look at some other ways to elevate suspense in the first 50 pages of your novel (You can find even more excellent tips in Jeff's book, The First 50 Pages).
Establish What's at Stake.
If I told you I was going to give you a million dollars, you'd probably be thrilled. If I told you I would give you a million dollars if you could get to Clipperton Island (a tiny atoll about 800 miles southwest of Acapulco) by noon tomorrow, you'd start feeling something else.
That something else-an almost frustrated kind of urgency tinged with the possibility of a great payoff-is what you want your reader feeling as she reads your novel.
There's a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it.
Show her a man longing to be reunited with his son. Show the son wanting to be back with his daddy. Then have someone abduct the boy and smuggle him to another country. Aaagh! How will that man find his little boy? We want to know now!
Show a woman locked into an engagement with an awful man. Show her meeting a wonderful man she really loves and who loves her back. Then bring tremendous forces into play so that the woman feels she must marry the first guy no matter what. No! It can't be!
Show us a ragtag group of freedom fighters who want only to live free of tyranny. Then show the evil Empire arriving with their Death Star to destroy the rebels' hidden fortress. Can they be stopped?
You see how it goes. Make us care about something, then put that something in danger. As these examples show, the danger doesn't have to be life and limb (though it can be). The prospect of the hero not getting what she dreams of (and what we've come to dream for her) is terrible enough.
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HOW TO RAISE THE STAKES IN YOUR FIRST 50 PAGES