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Writer's Room => Chapter Books, Easy Readers, and Middle Grade (MG) => Topic started by: Crista McHugh on December 09, 2019, 11:25 AM

Title: Stakes in MG books
Post by: Crista McHugh on December 09, 2019, 11:25 AM
I'm editing my first MG book (contemporary with light supernatural elements), and I'm questioning whether or not my "stakes" are high enough.
One of my beta readers suggested I up the stakes to something "bigger" that involves major supernatural chaos (FREX - Harry Potter vs Voldemort or "we literally need to save the world" kind of big). But I'm wondering if there's a place in MG for "smaller" stakes like winning the summer camp challenge. What are your thoughts?
TIA!
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: olmue on December 09, 2019, 12:08 PM
I think that whether it's saving the world or winning the summer camp challenge, stakes will always feel stronger the more personal they are. Why does your character want to win the summer camp challenge? What lack does that fill? What will happen if s/he DOESN'T win? What is personally endangered? Why does it matter?

Harry vs. Voldemort looks like it's about saving the wizarding world. But what makes it really matter and what makes it hit the reader in the heart, is the personal element. What Harry wants most is a family at his back. Voldemort took that away. What Voldemort endangers most is the family Harry has assembled to fill the lack of his parents. That's not a generic saving of the world. That's personal.
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: StephCampisi on December 09, 2019, 12:27 PM
Beautifully said, Olmue, and I agree completely!

Crista, winning the summer camp challenge can absolutely be a high-stakes issue for your character. It all depends on how much (and why) they want to win it. What do they stand to gain/lose if they do/don't?
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: Vijaya on December 09, 2019, 01:51 PM
Rose said it so well, about making it personal. What does it mean for your character to win the summer camp challenge? What will it mean if he or she doesn't? Is it about proving his or her worth to the parents? Is it about being a loyal friend? Is it about overcoming a fear? What does it mean? You would probably enjoy and benefit from Don Maass' book on the Emotional Craft of Writing. Good luck!
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: olmue on December 10, 2019, 06:43 AM
Another story I thought of that has really strong personal stakes is a TV show, not a book, but it's so well done that I've gone back to study it several times. (A Korean TV miniseries called Pinocchio.) It's about a guy who becomes a news reporter, fighting for accuracy and truth in reporting. What makes it really personal and what makes the stakes incredibly high is a clash between the main character's two most important personal values. First, due to sensational yellow journalism when he was a child, his father was falsely accused of something, and that inadvertently led to the main character losing his entire family. As a result, he has a great love for his family but also a great hole in his life because of this. So he's insanely committed to truth in reporting. However, while doing investigative reporting, he discovers that his brother may, in fact, be alive. And evidence points to his brother being the chief suspect in a crime. So now he has two massively strong values (truth and family) directly pitted against each other. The stakes are high no matter what he does, because whether he reports his findings or not, he will lose something big. The personal nature is what drives the whole show. Once the issue with the brother is resolved, there are still bad guys to fight, there is still reporting to do--but it slightly loses some steam because those incredibly high stakes have been lessened.

Not every story has to have this kind of double bind, but I do feel that it's one way to raise stakes even more. It's one thing if you're fighting against the world for what you want. It's even more if you have to fight against yourself.
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: Vijaya on December 10, 2019, 07:38 AM
Rose, thanks for that beautiful example. I discovered this while writing Bound too, a very domestic tale, that the internal struggle of pitting two values against each other (instead of an obvious good vs. an obvious evil) makes you dig deeper into the core of your characters.
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: Barbara Etlin on December 10, 2019, 11:15 AM
Thanks for this thought-proving discussion.
Title: Re: Stakes in MG books
Post by: Cali on December 12, 2019, 10:14 AM
This is very helpful! I'm also working on MG stakes in a revision and have been stuck, trying to figure out how to implement high stakes for a child that lost it's parents and has been living in a foster home.  I love the idea of making the stakes personal! Thanks for sharing.