Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Big Stakes Score

A professionally-written story will not necessarily sell. The prose can be good, the characters interesting, the plot possibilities mysterious, and the ending can kill it all if it’s cliché, or goofy, or low stakes. From TV, consider the infamous Dallas fiasco when a whole “season” turned out to be Pamela Ewing’s “dream.” Consider the miniseries It where the monster turns out to be a “giant spider.” Consider the story where the protagonist realizes at the end that he's been “dead” all along, or the tale where an abusive husband seeking to cheat on his wife meets a woman at a bar who turns out to be a…wait for it…vampire.

There’s no “payoff” in these endings. The “it was all a dream” is actually an insult to those who have invested their emotions in a work. The “guy who discovers he’s dead,” or who cheats on his wife only to meet a “vampire,” is too easy. The “giant spider” is just lame. Modern readers especially want more.

I mentioned one of my unsold stories the other day, “A Curse the Dead Must Bear.” I think it hasn’t sold because the ending doesn’t pay off. A man falls down the stairs and is declared dead. He seems dead, but his consciousness continues. He is aware of everything around him but cannot escape the decaying prison of his body, and he finds that every other “dead” person in the cemetery with him is the same. He can hear them murmuring while, of course, the “living” hear nothing. He begins to hate the “living” and is comforted by only one thought, that they will soon be in the same situation.

Big deal! I thought the idea that every dead person’s consciousness would be trapped within their decaying shell was interesting, but that point is revealed midway through the story and other than that what is the reader's payoff? The protagonist cannot “do” anything about his situation. He can only hate, and the target of his hate is perfectly safe. This is “low stakes.”

The cheating guy who meets the vampire is low stakes, as well. We can see that ending (or something like it) coming a mile away. And, two, the guy is getting what he deserves. Other than a little “he had it coming” feeling the reader isn’t getting much emotional payoff. The ending doesn’t leave us particularly happy, sad, disgusted, or afraid. It leaves us flat.

Want another example? A guy plans to commit suicide because he can’t stand his life. He wants oblivion. But when he finally gets up the guts to do it he finds that his consciousness continues and he’s in Hell. End of story. And low stakes.

How do you avoid low stakes endings? One way is to consider the low stakes “ending” as the beginning instead. Cheating guy meets vampire at the “start” of the story, and gets turned. Goes home to torment the wifey, thinking about how much fun he’s going to have now that he’s a supernatural abuser. He finds that his wife is having an affair too. And her paramour is a werewolf who, shall we say, “rips abusive husband a new one.” Or maybe he finds his wife having an affair with the female vampire who turned him, and they only want him to watch. Or maybe… Well, you get the idea.

You have to ask, is the ending to your story worth the effort that the reader has put into it? Will they go "cool," will they shake their head in disgust, or will they just not care? You only want the first result.


Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Darn you, Charles. You hadda go and mention the werewolf. Not quite the same, but if I wrote the lame vampire chick in the bar story, I'd turn it against her by making her pick-up a werewolf. Can't help you on your story, though. Maybe Patrick Duffy can be taking a shower with a giant spider...

the walking man said...

I like the idea of the little bang at the start but there still has to be the payoff ending for the reader even if they know what the ending is.


did you remember to feed the livestock while Lana is away?


Bernita said...

This is interesting and valuable.
While some types of stories do need comfortable or familiar endings ( ie. biter bit), they needn't conform to cliches.

I agree the dead guy story stops too soon, as you suggest - he needs to organize a band of vigilante ghosts or something, raise the stakes by raising the dead or some kind of Cain.

Frightlever said...

The Flashing Swords website is looking for links where Sword and Planet fiction (amongst others)can be bought.

I immediately thought of your Talera books. The second book never showed on Fictionwise so I'm going to wait for all three to come out in pbook and get them all then.

Michelle's Spell said...

I'm with you on payoffs. My stuff generally has the small payoff (typical of realistic domestic fiction -- God, what a horrible phrase now that I think about it!) but I have stories with absolutely no payoff and those are the hardest to shop. I usually find myself avoiding the difficult scene that would make it all work and then having to go back and write it anyway. Writing is torture!

Shauna Roberts said...

So when stories are limp, it may be that the writer has written the backstory instead of the story? Intriguing idea. I'll need to look at my unsold stories to see whether any of them suffer from backstoryitis.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wayne, you may be right. I should at least introduce a giant spider. They seldom fail.

Mark, yep, birds and critters are fed. I'm watching the gathering begin through my window now.

Bernita, vigilante ghosts is a cool idea.

Frightlever, thanks for the link. I found out the guy who sends books to fictionwise from Wildside has been on vacation for a few weeks so maybe he'll get back on top of things when he returns. I'm hoping for a September release for the third Taleran book.

Michelle, a torture we chose ourselves. What's up with that? Are all writers masochists?

Shauna, that's a good way to put it. I should have used that in my blog post.

Lisa said...

I'm glad Michelle came up with the term realistic domestic fiction -- I couldn't think of a good term to express the same sentiment. In the type of contemporary/realistic (?) fiction I'm attempting to write, it is extremely difficult to find ways to raise the stakes and provide a satisfying payoff -- exactly why this kind of story is not widely popular and why there are lots of them in this non-genre that aren't very good. But when I read one where the author has been able to successfully pull it off -- wow. The most recent example I read of a book where almost no literal action happened but where both characters lives are completely altered by their choices and non-choices is Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. No matter what the type of story, the readers need that payoff for their investment and they need to be tugged all the way through on the way there -- my biggest challenges!

Erik Donald France said...

Well, Bond always has big payoffs -- to the point of absurdity, however. It's not for the payoff that I enjoy the 007 books/movies, but I wonder if they'd be so memorable without something cheesey to give context for the other delights?

Anyway, always good to read here.
I'm starting a new story, and it's helpful to muse about these things.

Steve Malley said...

Orson Scott Card once said something similar, about how if your story doesn't have enough tension, it's really just backstory. Its ending is the start of your *real* book.

Also, payoff is a very different beast in the short story and the novel.

Short stories, the structure is setup, build-up... TWIST. The twist needs to be novel, original(ish) and turn the reader's expectations on their ear. Character development? Maybe. Or maybe not. Perceived stakes: just there for the reader's buy-in.

*Real* stakes? The power of that twist.

That's why the cheating/vampire story doesn't play. Sheridan LeFanau was the last writer to see a little gloss on that one...

In a novel, twisty endings are the maybe. As long as we care about the characters, genuinely believe them to be under increasing stress and pressure and see them make a truly defining action at the climax, we're good.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, in a novel the characters have stakes. In short stories, the stakes belong to the story itself.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, very good points. This is worth a blog post itself. I definetely was focused mostly on short stories in my comments.

Rachel said...

Good points. I had thought about lame endings, but I hadn't thought about taking that lame ending and making it the beginning. Thanks! That's a great idea!

Avery DeBow said...

The endings I hate the most are what I call 'the Unload.' Our antagonist spends pages revealing exactly why he did what he did, droning on and on to explain everything that the past three (or three hundred) pages has led up to. The worst of these I've come across was a fantasy novel I read a few years ago. I've forgotten the title and the author, but it involved the villain sinking into the floor, ranting for page after page about his motives, seemingly unaware he was on fire the entire time.

It's like some writers don't care enough to think about their story and alternate ways to slowly and deliberately feed the readers the information crucial to a satisfying ending. They just pile it all on the end. Nothing aggravates me more than that.

writtenwyrdd said...

This is an interesting and useful way to look at structure. Pat, moralistic endings really are low payoff and should be avoided. They also feature prominently in urban legends-- which should be a warning to writers!

But you could revamp that short story so the dead guy realizes his predicament at the end, sort of a Poe-like horror short, I'd guess.

Kate S said...

Ok, so a giant spider, a werewolf and a vampire go into a bar...

Must ponder on this.

Carleen Brice said...

Just curious. What about The Sixth Sense? Guy discovers he's really dead after all and I thought it was a helluva pay off. Just me??

Brandon said...

I have to agree that the novel and short story are approached the same, at least with me. I always felt that if you appraoch any story, no matter how big or how short, you approach it from every angle, fill in all you can, and edit later. What comes out is usually a tightly packed, well rounded story maybe two pages long, maybe a thousand. Either way, I think the approach is effective.
By the way, Charles, thanks for being part of the "Bloodline" at I'm happy to have you there.
Long Live Rock and Roll.