You’ve probably heard about raising the stakes, that important craft tool to deepen the reasons the events of the novel matter to your protagonist(s), and thus the reader.
But what does it mean to “crystalize” the stakes?
Crystalizing the stakes gets less attention, but it’s a powerful tool to focus the plot and evoke meaning within a scene.
Here’s what it means and how to do it.
What is crystalizing the stakes?
Let’s start with what the stakes are: they’re reasons your protagonist is invested in the events of the novel, often taking the form of potential rewards and potential consequences. To arrive at the stakes, ask yourself: What happens if my protagonist succeeds? What happens if they fail? The bigger the rewards and consequences, the more your protagonist will feel invested.
Crystalizing the stakes essentially means to focus those abstract stakes into something concrete. Crystalizing is itself a metaphor (distilling into something solid), but I like to think of crystalizing the stakes more along the lines using a magnifying glass to focus sunlight to start a small fire.
In other words: You’re taking elements that are amorphous and bringing them together into something focused to increase the heat.
In your novel, your protagonist should want something big. As they’re going after that thing (whether it’s something external, like a quest, or an inner journey, like deciding on a new life), their competing desires will bump up against each other.
To crystalize the stakes, you bring amorphous desires to the surface and crystalize them into something tangible. Sometimes this takes a physical form, like an object, but you can also do it by just forcing your protagonist to make a decision.
Examples of crystalizing the stakes
Here’s how it looks in action.
Let’s say you’re writing a YA novel and the protagonist is trying to figure out her future. Rather than making everything abstract and diffuse and just cycling through a bunch of ideas in an idle scene, what if, instead, there’s an acceptance letter to a particular university that’s sitting on her dresser that she has to take action on?
Something tangible like a letter takes what is amorphous and crystalizes it into something we can easily wrap our heads around. She either accepts the offer or she doesn’t, but it represents two very divergent paths.
In Jacob Wonderbar, Jacob wants to remain in outer space to keep looking for his dad, but his friends want to get back to Earth. In the climax, the King of Everything forces Jacob to choose between staying in space or going home with his friends. He can’t have both.
In The Matrix, the divergent paths Neo can take are very memorably crystalized into the red pill and the blue pill. Neo’s potential choices are distilled down into two items that must take action on, and Morpheus synthesizes what’s at stake in the point of no return:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.
In all these examples, it’s a matter of taking abstract competing desires, and distilling them down into something that’s concrete.
When to crystalize the stakes
It’s often helpful to try to crystalize the stakes when the character wants something, but they’re not doing anything about it. Or when the protagonist is at risk of being a passenger in their own story because other people are telling them what to do.
Even in a scene where Neo doesn’t really know what’s going on and Morpheus seems more in control, the Wachowski sisters force Neo to make a decision. They’re keeping the protagonist active and invested and putting skin in the game.
When protagonists aren’t active, it feels like they can’t really care about the things they want. A character just thinking about things in the abstract can often make a scene feel very aimless. If they’re just observers, it can feel like someone else’s story.
It’s always important to think about raising the stakes to give your protagonist more reasons to care about the events of the novel, which will make the reader care more too. But if those stakes are buried or abstract, bring them to the surface and crystalize them into something more tangible.
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Art: Cristal de roche, ou silice pure cristallisée by Louis Figuier