Raising the stakes for characters, using Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” as an example

WARNING: There is a 1 in 470,000,000.27 chance your monitor will explode while you are reading this, causing shards of glass to fly out and injure you. Also, SPOILERS regarding last night’s Sleepy Hollow season finale appear in this post. Ooh. Scary!

Characters: Abbie Mills, Icabod Crane, Katrina Crane, Captain Irving, Jenny MIlls

Characters: Abbie Mills, Icabod Crane, Katrina Crane, Captain Irving, Jenny MIlls

Sleepy Hollow is a ridiculous show. Every time I think it can’t get campier or more over the top, the producers say, “Oh yes it can.” Zombie George Washington anyone? Many times this season I’ve decided they are just making stuff up to be weird and have flirted with abandoning it, and I almost sort of 15% thought of skipping last night’s season finale. After all, Doctor Who is returning one of these months, and I’m ready for a grown-up, grounded, reality-based show again.

[That last line was a horns-blaring, chaser-light-arrow, flashing-neon work of sarcasm]

Not steaks. Stakes! Jeez.

Not steaks. Stakes! Jeez.

I’m glad I did not skip the Sleepy Hollow finale. Because I, like many writers, hold back too often, and sometimes I need a reminder as to what “raising the stakes” really means. The Sleepy crew capped the season with a 5-way cliffhanger that will not be resolved until the show returns in the fall. Of course, not everyone writes fantasy horror, so take this example in spirit if you lean toward realism in your work.

For the uninitiated, Sleepy Hollow is about Revolutionary War hero Icabod Crane, who kills one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in battle, but not before being fatally wounded by his opponent. His wife Katrina, a witch, casts a spell on him that keeps him in suspended animation for 250 years. He wakes up in the 21st century, just as a demon named Moloch is about to unleash hell on Earth. Crane teams up with a cop named Abbie Mills who, based on prophesy in a heretical gospel, is a “witness” destined to take a stand against the forces of evil and (maybe) save the planet. Did I mention this show is over the top? Oh yeah, her crazy sister Jenny and her boss, Captain Irving, are along for some demonic possession, corpse reanimation, and other alternative lifestyles.

OK, I’m running the spoilers now, so don’t get mad at me if you DVRed it and still haven’t watched: By the end of the season finale, Captain Irving is being charged with 2 murders he did not commit; Jenny is bleeding to death in a mangled truck that has crashed on a deserted road; Katrina has been abducted by the Headless Horseman; Abbie is trapped in Purgatory (yes, that Purgatory); and Icabod has been buried alive by his own son. Who, if I’m not utterly confused, is also War, one of the Four Horsemen.

Not that kind of stake, either! Well, maybe.

Not that kind of stake, either! Well, maybe.

Whew! Those are some high stakes, and, other than perhaps Jenny’s crash, none of these events seemed wedged in at the last minute for contrived tension. The groundwork had been laid in earlier episodes. Cool. Consider me inspired to up the threat level next time I put fingers to keyboard and resume my novel (Hahahahaha. Haha. Ugh).

As a blank pager (aka pantser), I’m doubly enthused. My best writing happens when I throw something at a character without knowing what it’s going to mean until I get to the end. I don’t know if Sleepy Hollow’s writers have a master plan, but I’d sure like to take a crack at writing the first episode of season 2, just for the chance to resolve a 5-way cliffhanger that I did not set up. Hello! Hollywood? I will work for cupcakes.

How about you? Do you ever hold back and play it safe in your writing, though you know it’s keeping you from finding your voice and realizing your true potential? And forcing bloggers to close out posts with a cliché that, nonetheless, has merit?


P.S. I would never abandon you, Abbie Mills. I was just talking.


17 responses to “Raising the stakes for characters, using Fox’s “Sleepy Hollow” as an example

  • nrhatch

    I am not hanging over the cliff . . . because I haven’t watch Sleepy Hollow. I did watch the Season Premiere of Sherlock on Sunday night and found it time well spent. I’m also engrossed in Season 4 of Downton Abbey.

    As for my writing . . . I play it safe most of the time. I could be a BRILLIANT writer but I’m too damn lazy. :mrgreen:

    • ericjbaker

      Brilliance is a damned burden. Probably. I wouldn’t know. Hopefully “witty” isn’t too stressful.

      Sherlock is fun. I didn’t see last season’s finale until the day before the S3 premiere, so I didn’t have to ensure much agony waiting to find out what happened.

  • shelleyhazen83

    That sounds like a wacky show – that I will admit I haven’t watched. I’m too obsessed with Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire to watch anything else but At Midnight…

    I guess I only hold back when I tell myself that the way I’ve envisioned the wording of a sentence won’t work, before I’ve even written the words down. If I just let them flow, without considering how they’ll sound in the long run, I find my instincts are usually correct. As far as plot goes, I think if you don’t feel compelled to let loose with an idea, then the story isn’t worth writing. True creativity is free, and when it’s controlled, there just isn’t any passion.

    By the way, isn’t Sleepy Hollow on Fox? I hear their other series the Following, or something like that, is the reigning king of over the top, like to the point of being asinine. Haven’t watched either. About serial killers, I think….?

    • ericjbaker

      Sleepy Hollow is very wacky, but they find the right tone. Campy but with a straight face, and not stupid, like an intentionally bad SyFy movie. I watched one episode of The Following, which was a fairly conventional hostage/siege plot. That’s not exactly a good sample size though.

      What you said. Not thinking about what I’m writing and just letting it spill out leads to better material. Thanks for adding your insights!

  • Jill Weatherholt

    There’s a show called Sleepy Hollow? I’ve never heard of it, but it doesn’t sound like I’m missing much.

    I know I hold back when it comes to my writing, but watch out when I decide to break loose! 🙂

    I’m happy to see you survived the blizzard, Eric.

    • ericjbaker

      Not missing much? I guess you didn’t read the part where I said “Zombie George Washington.” What more could a person ask for? I kid, but for people who write horror, sci-fi, and fantastical/supernatural, it’s pretty contemporary. Audiences are too jaded for you not to wink at them.

      I’m definitely upping the stakes as I continue to write. I have a bunch of things in the works, so we’ll see what happens. If I don’t freeze to death first, Say, that’s a stake, isn’t it?

  • D. Thomas Minton

    Ahh. raising the stakes . . . a topic near and dear to me as a writer. I think every scene in a short story should either: (1) raise the stakes/tension, or (2) maintain it at the current level to give the reader a short reprieve before turning the screws another full turn. At least until the end, that is. Nice post, Eric.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I haven’t seen the show (doesn’t really sound like my thing), but I definitely recognize the importance of raising the stakes. I think we’ve all seen that step-like graphical representation of a story’s plot. It always has to get harder for the characters.

    Personally, I’m not a pantser. I like to outline the rough steps of rising tension, at least to have a guide to work from as I move along, although that said, unplanned/as-yet-unexplained elements find their way in as well.

    I’m not sure what you mean by your question about holding back and playing it safe.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi there!

      I meant, do you ever keep your characters a little too safe or make them a little too nice. I’ve run across a decent number of blog posts from writers who don’t want to write unlikable characters so they end up with vanilla people, or they are too worried about offending or upsetting readers. I had a beta reader tell me the same thing about 2 of my stories (this is going back a few years): The final act held back/ the conclusions were unsatisfying. Too much Scooby Doo and not enough Real Ghost.

      I keep thinking about our point/counterpoint idea, and I think it has to be plotting vs pantsing. What do you think?

      • Janna G. Noelle

        Oh, I understand.

        This is definitely something I think about, for my WIP has a female protagonist who’s not easily likable.

        I feel I have to play it very smart in how I portray her, carefully balancing her questionable actions with the difficulties from her upbringing that motivate said actions, as readers tend to me much more forgiving of unlikable male characters than female, regardless of how much the unlikability makes sense within the character’s backstory.

        This, of course, is because there’s more pressure on women to be likable in real life than there is on men.

        Bestselling author Claire Messud’s most recent novel, The Woman Upstairs, features an “unlikable” female protagonist to which a review claimed, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with [her]”, as if that has anything to do with anything.

        Messud’s response to this was, “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet?…

        I’m planning to blog about this subject in the near future.

        As for our point/counterpoint, yes! That’s a great idea for a topic. I think there would be compelling arguments from both sides. How should be proceed with this?

        • ericjbaker

          I have some ideas I’d like to run by you. Can we discuss via email? I don’t think I have yours, so can you contact me at my gmail address? The front half is baker “dot” eric1

          (sorry not to spell it out, but I want to avoid auto-spammers)

  • nrhatch

    You might want to check this out:

    Among other things, Simon & Schuster is starting a Sci-Fi imprint and Penumbra Magazine wants Super Hero stories. And the Fog Horn is paying $1000 a story (for 1200-8500 words).

  • Anonymous

    I thought its was pretty good plot twist, I think people should actually watch the show rather to say’ I think its a silly show’ but we are all entitled to our opinion. The show to me is a hell of a lot better then shows like True Blood.

    • ericjbaker

      I can certainly see why people wouldn’t like it, because some folks just aren’t into supernatural horror fantasy and the like. That said, I don’t think “silly” is such a bad thing. It’s fun, the pacing it great, the characters have good chemistry and are charismatic, and the writers aren’t afraid to go for it. The headless horseman with a machine gun? That’s the moment that hooked me on the show, for the sheer audacity of creating such a visual, and it’s one of the sillier things I’ve seen on TV.

      Thanks for commenting!

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