Gizmo vs. Gremlins: How to Raise Stakes in your Story
What's at stake in your story? If giving readers likable, interesting characters in a decent setting kept them engaged, then Biblo (and later Frodo and Sam) would've stayed in the Shire. By raising stakes, writers pull readers in with reasons to invest--the characters must be removed from their comforts and plans to achieve a larger goal that's important, like saving the world. It's not a story without conflict, without something at stake.
To raise stakes in your story, toss in a few Gremlins.
“So if your air conditioner goes on the fritz, or your washing machine blows up, or your video recorder conks out, before you call the repairman, turn on all the lights, check all the closets and cupboards, look under all the beds, ’cause you never can tell. There just might be a gremlin in your house.” ~ Gremlins & Me, metaphorically.
Which would you pick if you had to describe yourself as a Christmas movie? I’d be Gremlins. My Christmas season--or any project or big event--begins with a positive, hopeful attitude, as I’d have toward Gizmo. “Ah, he's so cute, so much fun! He’s so warm, and cuddly, and sweet. Awww. I love him! Taking care of him is no big deal at all!”
But then something happens.
The cute lures of Christmas multiply and soon turn into monsters.
How am I going to get all this done? There’s too much to do, too much money to spend! The traffic! The lines! The madness!
“Tell me something, Billy. How come a cute little guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?” ~ Gremlins.
“I know, right?” ~ Me.
The clock is ticking. Christmas Spirit left on vacation. And instead of a cute and cuddly Christmas, I’m hoping to survive. I’m the mom in Gremlins, Mrs. Peltzer. Just trying to bake my damn gingerbreads but stopping every few minutes to battle little demon interruptions. And now, I’ll have to clean out the microwave, too! Argh!
The same could and probably should happen to your protagonist as your story builds and the pressures mount. There should be gremlins or monsters hiding in the woodwork. Whatever good intentions she started with should blow up in the microwave. Think about other Christmas favs where characters enter the story with the best intentions only for expectations to fly out the window:
Home Alone begins with a family about to have an amazing Christmas vacation that gets sidetracked when Kevin gets left behind.
Elf starts with Buddy expecting a happy reunion with his father, but nothing goes as planned.
Clark dreams of a perfect family Christmas in Christmas Vacation, but it's ruined mostly by, well, family.
The Grinch intends to steal Christmas from the Whos by raiding their presents and decorations but discovers those things don't matter after all.
John McClane expects to "fly out to the coast, have a few laughs" but ends up in a battle with terrorists. (Yes, Die Hard's still technically a Christmas movie)
Bringing in Gremlins for your character to battle provides an opportunity to show your readers what she's really made of. Besides, it's fun. I mean, seriously, have you ever seen a better Mom-battle scene than Mrs. Peltzer fighting Gremlins in her kitchen?
She gets one in the blender, stabs another to death, and zaps another in the microwave, turning it to liquified chunks! That’s what they get for eating her gingerbreads! Damn Gremlins. It's probably the best scene in the movie, and she's not even the MC!
Consider your character's Gizmos--that is, their cute expectations--and give them Gremlins--troubling, challenging, dirty reality. Of course, these don't have to be monsters, though why not?
Here are a few other Gremlin-like reality checks:
A flat tire on the way to the prom, court date, wedding, funeral, big presentation, Oscars, Post Malone concert
An unexpected answer... not getting the job, promotion, award, lottery, boyfriend, check in the mail
An old flame reaching out days before the perfectly planned, long-awaited wedding
Or hell, getting jilted at the altar altogether
A sinkhole, dragon, earthquake, or tornado
Lost keys... is that pesky ghost playing games with you again?
A car accident, a diagnosis, a robbery, a fire
Wrong place, wrong time, too much wine
An upsetting phone call, letter, telegram, text, special delivery... maybe blackmail?
A Ms. Ruby Deagle (the mean lady from Gremlins), an unreasonable boss, a dishonest co-worker, a nosy neighbor, a creepy professor, a villain
"Start with characters. Throw in Gremlins. Let characters battle Gremlins. Now, you have a story." ~ Me on how to write a story, smirking.
Your turn. What Gremlins could you throw at your MC to raise the stakes in your story? Share below!
Want more crazy writer ideas? Go to www.coffeebrained.com