The Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing

In my mind, there are seven big things that can undermine a novel. I want to address them all, but to avoid having a post 8 miles long, I'll break them up so they each have their own real estate. Today let's look at the first sin on the list!

Sin#1: Low Stakes

Stakes are paramount in a novel--they force your character to act. High personal stakes create strong conflict because each choice or action will carry a hefty price. Low stakes lead to mediocre conflict and a risk that the reader will not care about the outcome.

Often low stakes can be attributed to two things:

--the storyline lacks adequate conflict

Conflict is the key to holding the reader's attention and the driving force behind forward story movement and character investment. Pushing your character to clash with the forces against him or her is what gets the blood pumping--this is conflict! By infusing your story with scenes where characters experience heightened emotion and face powerful obstacles you not only create high stakes in your novel, you also raise them for the reader. Pages turn because your audience is drawn into the action, compelled to find out what happens next.

--The writer doesn't push the characters hard enough

Sometimes the stakes are high, the consequences dire, the action bursting off the page...and the character does not rise to the challenge. While indecision is often a large part of any thought process when facing difficult choices, it cannot overrun the character's actions. At some point, the character MUST COMMIT to a chosen course and put their all into it.

Other times, the writer sabotages the story because they care too much about a character to shove them in harm's way or force them to do the dirty work. If circumstances or another character always swoop in and save the day, the stakes flatline. CHARACTERS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. Never hesitate to throw them into the path of a bus. Only then can we really see what they are made of.

Can you think of other ways low stakes ruin a novel? Have you ever cared about a character so much you struggled to force them to face their fears?


Anna said...

"CHARACTERS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. Never hesitate to throw them in the path of the bus."

I think this might be my new favorite quote on writing. :-) In my own writing I've found that sometimes the stakes for the world/society can be high but the personal stakes for the main character might not be as pressing. I've been really trying to find a balance between the stakes for my characters and for the world they're trying to save.

Yunaleska said...

Is it bad that I automatically think which character I can kill off while I write a novel? For some reason at least one must die in each book...

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Great idea! So clever. My kids love your photo here with the mouse! I look forward to reading the next 6 sins.

Keri Mikulski said...

So true..

I love this part of the process.. Sometimes I throw too much in their way.

Casey McCormick said...

Great post! I'm having a hard time creating the right stakes in my rewrite, and I know that's exactly what it needs.

This is going to be a great series. : )

Harvey Chapman said...

Great post, Angela - looking forward to the rest.

Your children/bus point reminded me of something John Irving said.

Can't remember the precise words, but it was something like: "I don't search for characters when I write a novel, I search for victims."

Bish Denham said...

Excellent post! I look forward to reading about the other deadly sins.

Sandy Shin said...

"CHARACTERS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. Never hesitate to throw them in the path of a bus."

That's so very true! I struggle to raise the stakes sometimes in my own writing, but I am pushing at it! Thank you for such an awesome post. :)

Karen Lange said...

Lots to think about, thank you! I like the "Characters are not our children." I'll remember that one! Blessings:)

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Angela, this is most excellent. Can't wait for the next post.
It is also timely, because I'm facing a moment of truth for the main character of a new novel I'm writing, and I think I have make her do something that will have a disasterous fallout. I didn't want to do that, but I think it will vastly increase the stakes.
Thanks for making me face it, too.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

It sounds like I'm not the only one who absolutely loved this post. As hard as it may be for us, this is critical advice.

I think J. K. Rowling has already mastered the best part, though. "CHARACTERS ARE NOT OUR CHILDREN. Never hesitate to throw them in the path of a bus." Oh, so that's why Dumbledore had to die! and Hedwig and Lupin and Tonks and...Dobby! *wracking sobs for Dobby* I have to go cry now. :( LOL!

Elle Strauss said...

I also really love the pic!

I too, look forward to the other six sins I'm sure to have committed.

must make protag suffer, must make protag suffer....

Elle Strauss said...

Love the pic!

Can't wait to find out about the other six sins I'm sure to have committed.

must make protag suffer, must make protag suffer....

PJ Hoover said...

Great post! I struggle but then when I do, I know it means it's the right thing to do.
Kill off the characters. Right?

Martha Brockenbrough said...

I read "path of the bus" as "the bath of pus." Please don't make me throw my characters into one of those.

Vijaya said...

Sins capture our interest ... great topic and great post. I look forward to reading them all ... because I'm sure to commit them all. I confess I am too nice to my characters on the first pass.

Erica said...

Great post! Can't wait to read the other 6!
You've really covered Sin #1 very well. I don't really have anything to add :o)

I never have any problem pushing mine in front of the proverbial bus, however, I do connect more with the male characters in my novel, so the girls get the brunt of the conflict thrust upon them. They are the MC's after all :o)

Great post.

Blee Bonn said...

Awesome post! I had to "kill" off a character because of letting him do to much for the main character plus he was stealing the spotlight. He is so darn cute though so I think he will be coming back but I had to get him out of the way for awhile. :)

Beth said...

Am I evil because I love to torture characters?

My problem is revealing what exactly the stakes are. My characters are running around, trying not to get killed, but they have no idea why.

*has mini light bulb switch on* Aha! (Don't you just love that word?) I just remembered a lost plot thread. Yes, Precioussss, we will weave it in better during rewrites. Yessss.

Catherine A. Winn said...

This post was an excellent reminder of what to look out for. Sometimes I get a little too complacent and then wondere why something's not working. And I love the photo!!!!

ElanaJ said...

This is a great, great post. I'm bookmarking it so I can come back to it and remind myself to throw that child under the bus.

Hazardgal said...

Thanks again for your writing Rx. Now in part two of my novel, I need to sharpen my ax. I tend to have characters wage mental wars not physical ones. Too many ploughshares can make a book flatline! Again, thanks.

LM Preston said...

I personally get a kick out of thinking up all the horrible things that I can do to my characters. Sometimes, I have to stop myself...heeeehaaaa...whaahhaa (sinister laughter).

laurel said...

Fear of crossing into that dangerous territory of melodrama sometimes makes me back off turning up the heat for my characters. I hope you'll discuss motivation and how that relates to stakes in an upcoming post. It's a struggle to get it right, so all tips are most urgently sought!

Angela said...

Holy smokes--I guess this post was a hot topic with writers!

Anna--I really like your comment about personal stakes VS world stakes. I think this is a key of high stakes--they MUST be personal.

Yuna, I think its from hanging with Merc. LOL

Terry, Thanks! I thought this was the perfect pic to show stakes and consequences!

Keri, I'm like you--sometimes I throw too much at them and then need to scale back, chosing what events and conditions create the biggest impact.

Casey, I think that anyone wondering if they nailed the right focus of their novel should look at stakes. The stakes are what can make or break a story because it ties the plot to the character--it makes them have a stake in what's happening, which in turn makes the reader care.

Harvey, I LOVE that quote!!

Bish, Thanks so much!

Sandy, pushing is the key. Go for it!

Karen, Thanks!

Tricia, sometimes it's all about making our characters do what we don't want them to do. Go for it and good luck!

Shannon, that's a great example. Not that characters always need to be put in mortal danger to have high stakes. If their desires/needs/goals are clear and concise, then the high stakes can corespond to them and we'll believe in the cost/consequence ratio.

Elle, yes the protags must suffer. And strive. Whatever they want cannot be easy to get--that's the key.

PJ, sometimes characters need to die, but not always. It's all about the story. Sometimes death is an easier way out as well--it's an end to the strife and pain, and there is no chance for redemption. I think a person needs to weigh the decision to kill people off and make sure it fits. And if a character is killed off, it's important the writer has done their job to make sure the readers care about them to make sure the death has the greatest impact on more than just the POV character.

LOL Martha. That would be cruel indeed. :)

Vijaya, that's what revision is all about, right? We can transpose our suffering through rewrites into the story to make sure the character suffers too. *evil laughter*

Erica, that's an interesting comment. So you make the women suffer more because you connect better with the males, or are the women left with the aftermath of the male's sufferings?

Blee, I've often found a string connection with a secondary character and had to 'tone them down'. I try to put that connection aside tho and revive aspects of it in another MC in another book down the road.

Beth. The precious is never wrong. Just make the stakes personal and you'll have it!

Catherine, so glad the post helps!

Elana, I'm getting a bad image here, knowing what your day job is, LOL!

Hazardgal, nothing like a good axe I say. Especially if zombies are involved. :)

LM, but this is why we write, yes? We play God, for good and evil. Happy cackling!

Laurel, motivation will be included in another sin post, I promise! I know where you're coming from, worrying about melodrama. I worry about it too...which is why crit partners are soooo valuable. They'll give me a slap upside the head if needed. :-)

Ray said...


I'm so glad I came across this post and like everyone else I love the children and bus quote.
I once heard an author say something similar about violence in a story. It has to really hurt, there's no use writing in half measures. Look forward to the other six deadly sins.


Nathalie Mvondo said...

Angela, thanks for telling it like it is. :-D I am enlightened by the post and already scrutinizing my work, chasing after all the low stakes I can find. I'm smiling at the idea of going over the top the other way around.

My question is: can stakes ever be too high?

I look forward to learning about the other sins! (Never thought I would write that one day, lol)

Gayle C. Krause said...

Great advice, Angela. Looking forward to the rest.

Angela said...

Ray, I like that--it's so true.

Natalie, yes I think stakes can be too high. The two situations that come to mind would be insurmountable stakes that leave the character with no realistic options, and no hope. There's no where for the story to go, because the stakes paralyze all action.

The second would be when the stakes are too high to be real or tangible to the reader. Stakes are of no use if the reader doesn't believe in them. Stakes must always fit the story and stay within the realm of possibility for the world & characters that the writer has built.

Angela said...

Gayle, thanks so much!

Mary Witzl said...

My God, I've been guilty of every single one of these sins! Often, it's reading another novel which has made me see the error of my ways. Last year, I got a quarter of the way through a novel where all the characters liked each other and got on beautifully; their way was tough, but they never faltered, never found any obstacles that weren't easy to overcome. I got so bored I finally stopped reading, and I almost never do that.

"My characters aren't my children." (Repeating that like a mantra...)

Victoria Dixon said...

This was a marvelous series! Thank you so much for the description of Voice. I think you defined it in a way I can finally internalize.

C. L. Mac Neil said...

Excellent advice!! Looking forward to getting through the rest of the sins!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Such an excellent post. Of course I expect no less from you. Yes. My poor characters would most likely kill me if they ever escaped the pages. A frightening thought. But truly I do it for their own good. ;D

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks so much, Lisa and everyone. I'm happy this is useful to you. :)


Charlie Pulsipher said...

Hot topic. I agree completely, placing the destruction of not one, but two universes on my characters' shoulders. It's fun to watch them squirm and then conquer.

Merc said...

Nice post, Angela! :D

(I don't think I've ever really had trouble being nasty to characters... *cough* but showing why stakes are important to individual characters is, I admit, a struggling point.)

Looking forward to the next six. ;)


Ana'Gia Wright said...

Whenever I start to write my favorite phrase is "now how do I make this worse for my character" It is the cornerstone of most of my writing. I rarely find myself in a corner because there is always a way to make things worse. The down side to that is that there is always a way to make things worse. It is the pulling back from that and finding an ending that is the greatest challenge of them all.

Great article. Keep them coming.


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