I have about ten or twelve subjects I teach, but sometimes while teaching a class something strikes me as being "too big" to be part of a workshop and I think maybe it needs its own workshop. This happened in the JOURNEY STEPS class I was teaching to the local Sisters in Crime group this month. I got to the end of the workshop where I talk about cool things you can do to "raise the stakes" of your novel and I sort of paused.
We toss around that phrase "raise the stakes" as if it's a given that we all understand what that means. But do we?
Do we know that there are a billion different ways stakes can be raised, depending upon your starting point and your book's purpose? For instance, in a category romance, the second a boss kisses his secretary, their relationship changes...they can't go back to who they were, or to the relationship they had before the kiss.
That's a point of no return. Inherent in a point of no return is risk. The boss above didn't kiss his secretary her first day of work because he knew there were consequences to kissing her. And what are consequences? Usually they are things your character can or will lose, things he doesn't want to lose!
So once our boss kisses the secretary, he doesn't merely change their relationship. He also faces consequences. Will she report him to Human Resources? Will she like it enough that they start a relationship? Will she like it too much and become a stalker? If someone saw, will he lose his job? Will his secretary be fired? (And btw this happened all the time back in the "olden days" before workplaces became as progressive as they are now. A secretary was easily replaced. LOL An executive was not.)
That guy did not kiss his secretary the very second he realized he was attracted to her because kissing her meant putting things at stake. Potential losses. He has to be motivated to kiss her and then, after he does, he has to be prepared for consequences.
And what does that cause? Tension. And what makes a book and edge-of-the-seat read? Tension.
When you begin to think of your characters' actions in terms of points of no return, suddenly all kinds of opportunities for tension pop up in your story.
Will he kiss her? Should he kiss her?
Will he touch her? Should he touch her?
Will he start a relationship with her? Is he just toying with her?
Does he even know what he wants?
Of course, points of no return, potential losses and tension don't just pertain to romance and/or kissing. LOL Depending upon the type of book you are writing, all kinds of things can be points of no return. Especially when you realize that a point of no return is something...anything...that changes your character's life or takes it in a new direction, whether anticipated or not.
Being involved in an automobile accident
Buying a house
Getting a mortgage
Joining the military (They don't let you take that one back!)
Having a child who joins the military
Having a child who goes to college
Having a drug dealer move in next door
Witnessing a crime
Discovering your friend is your best suspect in the murder you're investigating
Shooting someone (Hello, Thelma and Louise)
Discovering your spouse was cheating
Discovering your spouse has a double life
Having a child who is bullied
Getting a dog (Which can be returned to the pound, but really, Dude? Are you that cruel?)
Discovering you have cancer
Losing weight (Of course you can gain it all back if you don't like your new life...but for a while you'll be in a land you don't recognize, a land you have to learn how to navigate.)
While some of those are "surprises" that happen in a person's life, they nonetheless change that person's life. It will never be the same after an automobile accident, a bout with a life-threatening illness, a fight for a child.
Others on that list come with tension before the decision and tension after.
Others are ways authors begin books. We call them inciting incidents. We use them to begin books because we know the character's life will never be the same after that "incident."
So...because we're running out of space and time...Let's bring this down to one line...or two. A point of no return begins a book and creates tension, unknowns, and comes with decisions that have to be made. Other people can screw up a perfectly good plan, causing tension, unknowns, and forcing decisions that have to be made.
Your character is on a journey to be, have, or do something. If the road is smooth, your story won't be very exciting. So ruffle up the road. Put him smack dab against decisions with consequences he doesn't want or doesn't expect, things he could lose. Big things like his self-respect. And you will find you have raised the stakes. :)