Make the Stakes Life-and-Death
Our Most Dreaded Outcome in crafting fiction based on our real lives is that the story will be too internal, too ordinary, too boring.
Life is internal.
Life is ordinary.
Life is boring.
And don’t forget our first axiom of the Lit Biz:
How can we make our real-life story dramatic, involving, and exciting? I’ll answer by quoting my old mentor Ernie Pintoff:
I don’t mean we have to kill off a character (though that always works,)
I mean raise the stakes.
Did you see the movie Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Bradley Cooper, written and directed by David O. Russell? The entire first half hour is about nothing but establishing the stakes for the protagonist, the real-life Joy Mancuso, as life and death. Not literally, but emotionally.
Act One introduces us to Joy as the only responsible adult in her crazy, dysfunctional extended family—all of whom are living under the same roof. We meet Joy’s bedridden mom (Virginia Madsen) , who watches soap operas all day and refuses to leave her room. Her estranged father (Robert De Niro) suddenly appears on the doorstep; he moves in to the basement, where Joy’s ex-husband is already living. Joy’s sister hates her. Joy’s boss fires her from her job. The plumbing explodes in the floor of her mom’s bedroom.
The responsibility for fixing all this comes down on Joy. She’s the designated adult. Everyone else in the family dumps their baggage on her.
Plus we see in flashbacks that the young Joy—Joy as a girl—was spontaneously and joyously creative. But that Joy has vanished under the weight of family dysfunction.
The stakes for Joy, we see, are not just life and death … they’re worse. If she can’t change the course of her life, she is doomed at the soul level. What makes the story even more powerful is the contrast between the soul-stakes for Joy and the creative flash that saves her. She invents the “Miracle Mop” and pitches it on the Home Shopping Network. What could be sillier? But the success or failure of that mop is life and death for Joy Mancuso.
I took a different tack in structuring The Knowledge.
Starting with a real-life interior narrative not too different from Joy’s, i.e. a theme of unrealized and self-sabotaged creativity … I added a second parallel story, a murder mystery that embodied this storytelling principle:
Make the internal external.
Or, put another way,
Make the invisible visible.
The aim of both techniques (that used in Joy and that employed in The Knowledge) is the same—to raise the stakes for the protagonist to life and death.
One of the ways that aspiring writers fail, when they’re using their own lives as the basis for their fiction, is they’re reluctant (often for honorable reasons) to mess too much with their truth.
They over-respect this truth.
They’re afraid if they heighten it too much, they’re being dishonest. They’re “going Hollywood.”
They’re hesitant to give their characters scenes and dialogue that the real people on whom those characters are based (including themselves) would never do or say in real life.
In The Knowledge, I had my sweet, reserved ex-wife whip out a .45 automatic and start blazing away at a carload of assassins.
I had myself beaten up, fired, rejected, cheated on, fired again, beaten up again.
I had characters die who didn’t die in real life.
Remember our other prime axiom:
Don’t be afraid to make sh*t up.
I don’t know Joy Mancuso’s real-life family. I can’t say for sure that they were (or are) as nutty and dysfunctional as the movie painted them. Maybe David O. Russell, as writer and filmmaker, was blessed with real-life characters and situations that were already over-the-top wacky.
But I doubt it.
I think David O. Russell pumped up the volume.
I think he made the internal external.
He heightened reality.
He made the stakes for Joy life-and-death.
It’s always a great exercise, when you and I read over our own stuff, to ask ourselves throughout the process:
What are the stakes for our hero?
Remember, the higher the stakes, the more emotion will be generated in the reader.
The higher the stakes, the more the reader will be sucked in.
The more she will care.
The more she will be involved in the fates of the characters.
The more she will root for the hero.
And the faster she will turn the pages.
If the stakes of your story are not life-and-death, change them.
Make them life-and-death, at least emotionally.
Don’t be afraid to make sh*t up.