Call me a nerd, but I went to see Cowboys and Aliens twice.
Say what you will about its plot holes and cheesiness*--which it certainly has in spades--but it definitely has entertainment value. My friends and I were snickering so hard I was afraid we would get thrown out of the theater by one of the other 6--six--people who were trying to watch the movie. (But I'm pretty sure they were snickering right along with us. How could they not be?)
I wrote recently about the importance of raising the stakes and how there must be a moment in every book where I seriously question whether or not the MC will succeed. If the author doesn't help me forget that the MC always wins, they haven't done their job.
But because I've turned into this crazy person who looks for ways to hone her writing craft even when she's watching a ridiculous movie, I learned that raising the stakes really is a fine art. Cowboys and Aliens got some things right and somethings really, really wrong. For the sake of being spoiler-free, I won't tell you which ones are which, but here are some insights I gleaned when I wasn't too busy appreciating handsome, manly men:
- The motives must be believable. Give your characters a realistic reason to be risking their lives/relationships/whatever or the readers won't buy it. Like, literally. They won't buy the book. If Harry Potter had been fighting Voldemort to protect a colony of bunny rabbits, J. K. Rowling would still be riding trains. That's an extreme example, I know, but if your readers look at your MC's motive and think, "So what?" you need a different motive.
- Raising the stakes usually requires balancing between "high enough" and "over the top". Trying to cram too many risks into one book usually results in a completely ridiculous story. Make things too difficult, and your readers really won't believe your MC can succeed. Any such success will look contrived and silly.
- Establish the rules early and play by them for the rest of the book. If your MC has a special talent or tool that could save them, don't throw it in right before the climax and say, "Surprise! Look what so-and-so or such-and-such can do!" This reeks of deus ex machina, which is one of my favorite literary pet-peeves and worth a post all of its own.
- Adding an extra layer of risk right at the climax is a cheap shot, too, and it's a pretty good indication that the conflict that has driven your plot all along isn't sufficient to build high enough stakes.
- It's okay to break rules if you're writing a comedy. Over-the-top stakes are the stuff comedian dreams are made of, so have at it.
Have you seen the movie? What did you think? And what insights into the art of raising the stakes have you learned from your own watching and reading experiences?
*And language and nudity, which I must warn you about if you are as prudish as I am.