“Reveals keep the narrative from plodding directly from one point to another, and often sends it off in another direction entirely. This comes from theater in which there’s a curtain, you don’t know what’s behind the curtain. Action goes on, the curtain is pulled back and suddenly you’re in another place that is very different from where you were before.”
In the following clips, Walter Jon Williams explores two of the three R’s of plotting – raising the stakes and plot twists – and uses numerous examples to explain their significance in the commercial fiction space.
- Consider one of your favorite commercial speculative fiction books and its plot. How do things progress from the first problem to the conclusion? Identify all the moments when the stakes get greater, more complex, and/or more difficult.
- Throughout these clips, Williams provides numerous examples of novels and films which engage in raising the stakes and plot twists. What are some examples that come to mind for you? Explain and discuss how each of the Rs appears in that story!
- Related to the previous question, take a moment to think about how plot twists can serve to raise the stakes in a story. What are some memorable plot twists in film or literature which also work to raise the stakes in that story? How?
- Create a simple problem for a character to overcome and map out the series of events that might result from the one problem. How might you raise the stakes, and how do you connect each new event to the one that preceded it?
- Create a situation in a story in which a character or event might be revealed to be different from where it began. For example, the murderer turns out to be someone other than who the detective originally expects or the mysterious events around the world turn out to be a scientific experiment gone wrong rather than aliens. What clues might you leave in the story for the reader or your main character to follow (during or after the fact)? Write them down!
- Drawing on the results of the previous exercises, take 20 minutes to outline the plot of a story which incorporates both features (raising the stakes and plot twists). If you’re working in groups, exchange your plots and engage in some constructive critique. How might you reorder or rewrite the events to build a stronger story?
- “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler (1984) in Bloodchild and Other Stories
- “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (1970) in Library of America’s Story of the Week
- “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920) via Mint Editions
- Toas Toolbox Writers Workshop
Walter Jon Williams is a New York Times bestselling author who has been nominated repeatedly for every major sci-fi award, including Hugo and Nebula Awards nominations for his novel City on Fire. He is the author of Hardwired, Aristoi, Implied Spaces, and Quillifer. Williams lives near Albuquerque, New Mexico, with his wife, Kathleen Hedges. He can be found on his website.
Walter Jon Williams: [Let’s] start with raising the stakes. ‘Raising the stakes’ is otherwise known as ‘things get worse.’ The situation grows more complicated, more desperate, and has more significance, the farther into the story you go. And the obstacles the protagonist has to overcome get bigger, the menaces get more menacing, and the prize gets bigger. For example, Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novel from the 50s, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel: at the beginning, Kip’s problem is to get to college; he needs to raise money. So he enters a contest and he gets second place. First place would be enough money to get him through college. Second place is a used spacesuit. So he thinks, well, at least I can fix up the spacesuit and sell it. And he fixes it up. And just before he decides to sell it, he decides to go for a walk in it, just in his own neighborhood. And he is picked up by a UFO and carried off to the Moon.
Okay, that’s raising the stakes number one. Then his problem is to escape captivity on the moon, which he does. But he’s recaptured; stakes raised again. And then he’s moved to Pluto. And he has to signal the interstellar police from Pluto in order to save Earth from invasion; that’s raising the stakes a lot. And then he is put on trial before the galactic court or whatever, in which he has to save the human race from annihilation. Now that’s about as high a stakes-raising as you can go. And it is all plausible, you know, once you accept the initial premises. Heinlein did this a lot in The Star Beast. He starts out with a teenage boy trying to save his alien pet, and ends up with a confrontation between Earth and a powerful interstellar civilization. In Double Star, he starts with a down-at-heels actor agreeing to impersonate a kidnapped politician for a few days, and the days keep getting longer as the politician falls ill and eventually dies. In order to save civilization, the actor has to keep up his impersonation for the rest of his life, so that’s stakes raised throughout.
The movie Juno starts with a teenage heroine getting pregnant, which raises the stakes considerably. Right at the outset, she decides to give up the child and finds an upper middle class family who need a child, but the stakes get raised again when later in her pregnancy, the couple splits up, and so she has to face a whole new momentous series of decisions.
In Spider Man, Peter Parker starts out with typical teenage problems. He gets bitten by a radioactive spider; he develops superpowers. And in an attempt to buy a car and impress the girl he’s got a crush on, he gets involved in a cage fight with a wrestler. He’s cheated out of his winnings, then refuses to intervene when somebody steals the gate. The stakes get raised when he finds out the thief has killed his Uncle Ben. Then he finds out the girl he’s in love with is going with his best friend who is secretly the Green Goblin, who is his best friend’s dad, kidnaps his Aunt May and then later kidnaps Mary Jane, and stakes are raised everywhere you look.
Okay, when you raise the stakes, the narrative tension increases. The reader is all the more involved in the story. Care should be taken that the stakes aren’t raised in ways that violate the reader’s trust, which I had always felt happened in Frank Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune. The emperor is presented as knowing the future, because his whole family does, right. But because it amuses him, he decides not to view the future of one of his relatives, who is the one involved in a plot to kill him. So I feel that was cheating.
Walter Jon Williams: Now, reveals, the second R, also called ‘plot twists’ and/or ‘epiphanies.’ Or as Aristotle called it, agonic morosis. This isn’t new.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Pullin’ out the Greek, it’s impressive!
Walter Jon Williams: The origin is in theater, which is why Aristotle was commenting on it in the first place. A ‘reveal’ is a scene in which either the reader or the character, or both, is given a piece of information or makes a realization that causes them to reevaluate everything that has gone on before. Reveals keep the narrative from plodding directly from one point to another, and often sends it off in another direction entirely. This comes from theater in which there’s a curtain, you don’t know what’s behind the curtain. Action goes on, the curtain is pulled back and suddenly you’re in another place that is very different from where you were before. So reveals are the staple of whodunit mystery novels, where the entire point is for the detective to reveal the villain at the end. Revelations abound in classical literature: Oedipus reveals his own past, Arthur is revealed to be the rightful King of Britain. Lord Ruthven is revealed to be a vampire in The Vampyre. Rose Maylie is revealed to be Oliver Twist’s aunt, the author of Pip’s Great Expectations is revealed to be Magwitch. The Prince is revealed to be the Pauper, and vice versa. Heinlein was good at this one too. In Starbeast, there’s a huge revelation when the protagonist’s pet is revealed to be an alien overlord. And which is doing a reveal and raising the stakes at the same time.