Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 2 – Personalizing the Stakes

Yesterday, I blogged about using specific stakes in your query. Today, I’m going to talk about making the stakes more specific by making them personal to the main character.

Once again, you’ll want these three queries pulled up for reference.

Mine

Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

Personalizing the stakes in your query is something that tends to be easier for those who write “quiet” stories, and a little harder for those who write more commercial, action-packed books. What do I mean by personalizing the stakes? I mean tying the stakes back to something the main character desperately wants or needs personally. So while the story may be about saving the world, or finding a lost treasure, or capturing the bad guy, it also fulfills something closer to the main character’s heart. Readers connect to characters, not to plot lines, so making the stakes personal is key to making your reader care.

The key to personalizing your stakes comes at the very beginning of the query. When you introduce us to the main character you give us a brief snapshot of what has shaped them, what their normal is like, and what they desire. If you do this a the beginning, then take us through the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacle, once you get to stakes, you tie it back to something emotionally powerful from the very beginning when you introduced us to the character.

Look at how Joy did it. Beginning: She’s never singled out for anything, unlike her siblings, who are all prodigies at something, even if it’s just being adorable (like two-year-old Claude) 

End: But then awful Hayden starts closing in. If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.

See how she referenced what Natalia really wanted in the beginning and then again at the end? That’s personalizing the stakes.

Now mine. Beginning: 11-year-old Kate doesn’t believe in magic, though. After all, she believed her dad when he promised to stay with Mom through happiness and sorrow. But when sorrow poured into his heart like a mudslide, he left without saying goodbye. Kate’s not going to fall for her grandma’s silly idea that magic can bind families and heal hearts.

End: But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.

Do you see how I brought back the idea of broken promises and believing that people won’t let you down? But specifically in relation to her dad and grandmother?

Personalizing the stakes is just as important in action adventure books too. Let’s think about what a query for THE HUNGER GAMES might look like.

You could just tell us that Katniss volunteers for her sister Primm and that only one person survives. Life and death are pretty compelling stakes, right? But what if you zoom in more. What if you paint a brief picture of how Katniss provides for her family and loves her sister. Then you introduce us to Peeta, the boy who saved her family from starvation. Then you give us the stakes. “If Katniss wins, the boy who saved her family will die. If Katniss loses, how will her family survive without her?” Isn’t that a lot more compelling than just life or death?

What about HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS?

I’m choosing this book because the stakes are easier to work with. They focus squarely on Hogwarts shutting down and Hermione dying. Those are just fine stakes. But let’s zoom in again. If you tell me in the first paragraph about the boy in the cupboard under the stairs who lived with his aunt and uncle who hate him, then you give me the inciting incident, goal, obstacle, and when you come to the stakes, don’t just say, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets to save Hogwarts and his best friend.” Tell me, “Harry must find the Chamber of Secrets or he’ll lose the only place that’s ever truly felt like home and the only people who feel like family.” Those are personalized stakes. That is powerful.

Next, I’ll try to hit on hooks and internal vs. external goals/stakes in your query. Hope this was helpful!

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5 thoughts on “Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 2 – Personalizing the Stakes

  1. Hmmmm. Both of these posts have been very helpful. I went for humor in my query (and the book does have humor in it), but I guess I need to figure out how to word my character’s arc through the book. She goes from being kept in the dark about most things by her family to learning more and accepting responsibility for what she does toward the end. Hmmm…

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