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Writing Process & Programs > Stakes in literary fiction - Are they really that important?

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message 1: by Leon (new)

Leon Kaminsky | 10 comments Once again, I've been told I need to introduce/raise stakes for my characters. And yeah, I get it, and I guess I will do it in future. But: I look at my favourite books in the literary fiction genre, and the stakes there don't seem to be really prominent, either (unless my memory betrays me).
I know this is probably a terrible question, but I have to ask anyway: just how important are stakes in literary fiction? My debut novel and a new series (hopefully) I'm currently working on are comparable to "Portnoy's Complaint", "Ages of Lulu" and maybe (a little) "Tropic of Cancer" (even though I hated it, to be honest).

Many thanks for your input!


message 2: by Roxanna (last edited Sep 01, 2019 11:35PM) (new)

Roxanna López My thought is, Isn't literary fiction supposed to be experimental? About creating new forms and telling a story the way it has not been told before? Isn't adhering to a formula a way of making it less literary and more pop? I don't see any problem with varying the stakes for the characters. Actually, I despise the artificially upped stakes that some books take nowadays in order to pander to the reptilian brain of readers. That is just my opinion, though. At the end each author has to see for his or herself what they truly want to say and in which form to say it.


message 3: by Anna (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 528 comments I suspect, Roxanna, that a lot of good writers agree with you.

Leon, it's a question of popular fashion, I think. It's all pow, zap and wham at the moment.

Books without continual conflict, goals and raised stakes might be popular in years to come when everyone gets fed up of artificially raised stakes.

However, we writers need to remember that some readers read to escape from perhaps an enforced humdrum reality of the world we live in. Some readers live whizzing around and perhaps they like to relax by watching others doing the whizzing and the raising of the stakes which they continually experience in reality.

In short, you can't please everyone. But if you want to sell and get rich you must provide enough people with what they want.

Or you can write true to yourself and your own observations and beliefs.

Good luck! And remember, no one said it would be easy (and if they did, they're wrong).


message 4: by Roxanna (new)

Roxanna López Anna Faversham wrote: "I suspect, Roxanna, that a lot of good writers agree with you.

Leon, it's a question of popular fashion, I think. It's all pow, zap and wham at the moment.

Books without continual conflict, goals..."


I wish there was a "like" button here. :-) Great advise.


message 5: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Murrell | 348 comments I actively seek books with low stakes. I commonly complain that too many layers are added to modern stories, which greatly kicks in my scoff factor. Simple stories can be just as powerful/enjoyable.


message 6: by Anna (new)

Anna Faversham (annafaversham) | 528 comments I like to write something that gives the reader something worthwhile to think about long after they've reached the last page because that is what I like in a book myself. It enriches my life.

Leon, I was always taught to evaluate the person doing the telling me what to do. It has saved me much time and agonizing. If I can't respect them and what they do, I probably don't need their opinion.

Thank you Roxanna. I've learnt such a lot from folk on Goodreads.


message 7: by Dwayne, Head of Lettuce (new)

Dwayne Fry | 4276 comments Mod
In response to your title, yes. Stakes are important in any fiction. Without them, there's no plot, no conflict, nothing.

As for the body of your question:

Literary fiction is my specialty, whether reading or writing. It is a very different animal than genre fiction. It almost doesn't even belong in the same zoo. Stakes are important, but not as much so as in genre fiction. It's one of the reasons I like it best.

I don't know your writing. The advice to keep raising stakes, however, seems more directed to genre fiction. If you have many telling you the stakes aren't high enough or you need to keep raising them, perhaps they're right. If it's only one or two people, take a hard look at who they are. Do they understand literary fiction? (This is not a presumption that you have be especially bright to read literary fiction. I mean those who don't read much of it, probably don't realize it's different from genre fiction).

There are some literary writers who played the raising stakes game and did it well, such as John Steinbeck. Myself, I pattern my stories after those of Twain and John Irving, where I have one to three major plots going with many little subplots popping in and out and the stakes keep going up and down. It's been a long time since I read Philip Roth, but as I recall his writing was much like that, too.

If you're satisfied with your writing, chances are there will be others who will be satisfied with it, too. If you're not satisfied with your writing, no one will be.


message 8: by Robert (new)

Robert Brown | 57 comments "Stakes" is another way of creating reader engagement. A reader can be engaged many ways, as the last three comments suggest. I too prefer subtlety.


message 9: by Leon (last edited Sep 02, 2019 06:18PM) (new)

Leon Kaminsky | 10 comments Thanks so much for your input, everyone! And a special thanks for reaffirming what I'd been suspecting already!
I'm working on a series of literary novellas at the moment, but also planning a fantasy book. So, I guess when I start writing the latter, I'll need have some serious stakes like the destiny of the universe or something, lol Well, OK, not quite so high. But now that I think about it, when I was jotting down notes on the story, the stakes kind of almost appeared themselves. So, yeah, I guess maybe it is more natural for genre fiction.
But although I'm sure I'll enjoy writing it and being silly and jokey with it, I'm almost certain that it will never be as much fun as staying in present-day London and rambling about relationships, sex, pop culture and things like that. But maybe I'm wrong...


message 10: by B.A. (new)

B.A. A. Mealer | 818 comments Literary Fiction is usually character driven, not action. You do need tension and there has to be a reason they are doing things, but unlike genre fiction, the stakes aren't as prominent, but they are there and will come into play as you near the end. Go back and read Michener, Faulkner, Dickens, or any of the classics. They go into characters in depth and the characters drive the story, not action. Like another person said, literary fiction has looser rules, so write it how you feel the story is told best with the stakes being what makes sense for that story.


message 11: by Alberto (new)

Alberto Balengo | 1 comments I recently published a short story ebook, and the stakes could not be lower. My stories were about losing a key, going to a job interview, watching TV, eating a taco, etc. They were microcosms of living. There were tensions and conflicts (and climaxes, in a way). In a way, the fact that you decided to write about something can be its own justification.... (Whether readers will want to read it is another story).

Longer forms are a different species obviously. You need to keep the reader's interest...

Ohio author Jack Matthews talks about the "pointedness of the tale" and the inevitable momentum towards some resolution. I would worry less about stakes than momentum.


message 12: by Phillip (new)

Phillip Murrell | 348 comments Alberto wrote: "I recently published a short story ebook, and the stakes could not be lower. My stories were about losing a key, going to a job interview, watching TV, eating a taco, etc. They were microcosms of l..."

Stories like this tend to be refreshing. We can all relate to these tasks, but few can brag about literally saving the universe (yet somehow, those are the stories I keep writing).


message 13: by Michael (new)

Michael | 2 comments Phillip wrote: "Alberto wrote: "I recently published a short story ebook, and the stakes could not be lower. My stories were about losing a key, going to a job interview, watching TV, eating a taco, etc. They were..."


message 14: by Leon (new)

Leon Kaminsky | 10 comments Longer forms are a different species obviously.
Another reason I particularly enjoy writing short stories!
And yeah, that's exactly the kind of stuff I love to read about, Alberto!


message 15: by Anne (new)

Anne Schlea | 41 comments Roxanna wrote: "My thought is, Isn't literary fiction supposed to be experimental? About creating new forms and telling a story the way it has not been told before? Isn't adhering to a formula a way of making it l..."

Reptilian brain? How funny.

Sincerely, tell your story. Have great characters. Don't write to a genre or to fit a pattern. (From someone who works in music and songwriting.) If you're just trying to follow the playbook, readers will know and you'll feel fake.


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