The Stakes are High When the Stakes are Small

High-Stakes-Small-StakesBrendan Hodge is guest posting today. Brendan first became fascinated with World War One in high school, when he read the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. His novel about WWI has been brewing for a long time and Volume 1: Things Fall Apart is available in draft form to read and critique on his website. You’re a brave man, Brendan!

The Stakes are High When the Stakes are Small by Brendan Hodge

Written in the 1860’s about the Napoleonic Wars sixty years before, War & Peace is one of the grand-daddies of historical fiction. In a novel whose size rivals the country it describes, Tolstoy takes the reader from St. Petersburg and Moscow to Austria and Poland. However, although we get to listen in on the councils of Tsar Alexander, Napoleon, and General Kutuzov and view such epic scenes as the Battle of Austerlitz and the burning of Moscow, it’s not actually these giant historical set pieces which keep us turning the novel’s 1200+ pages.

We read the novel to find out what happens to the characters. Will impulsive young Natalie at last find love and happiness? Will idealistic Pierre manage to act on his good intentions rather than being at the mercy of his impulses and his unscrupulous wife’s family? Will Princess Maria escape the domination of her manipulative father?

Even though the novel delivers on the epic proportions of its title, the most suspenseful and involving moments are small scale. I read far more urgently to discover whether Natalie would run off with the unscrupulous Dolohov, whether Nikolai would ruin himself at the gambling table, or whether Pierre would be executed by the French on suspicion of arson than I did to see the conclusion of any of the major battles portrayed.

This is just as true of popular modern examples of the Historical genre. When Bernard Cornwell brought his initial series of Richard Sharpe novels to a conclusion with Sharpe’s Waterloo, putting his up-from-the-ranks rifleman hero into one of the biggest and most pivotal battles that Europe had seen to date, the key drama does not come from the clash between Wellington’s and Napoleon’s armies on the battlefield, but rather from conflicts closer to the main character: Sharpe’s struggle against the incompetence of his commander, the Prince of Orange, and the deadly rivalry between Sharpe and Lord Rossendale, with whom Sharpe’s wife has run off.

In these examples we see one of the contradictory dynamics of historical fiction: For many readers, seeing historical periods and events come alive is a key attraction. And yet, even the most dramatic historical event is not, in and of itself, sufficient to create a gripping novel. Why?

In any story, whether it’s a five minute acting scene or a thousand page novel, drama is created by stakes and conflict. What does the character want? What is keeping him from getting what he wants? What will happen if he doesn’t overcome those obstacles? The bigger the obstacles and the higher the stakes, the more gripping the drama.

Historical events seem like they should be high drama. After all, the historical novelist can write about some of the most dramatic moments in the history of the world: the Battle of Britain, the fall of the Aztec Empire, the Black Death.

Yet although historical events are big and in a sense high stakes, there are two reasons why they do not provide enough drama to carry a novel on their own: The reader already knows how historical events turn out, thus reducing suspense, and many historical events are so big that they provide a context for character conflict rather than providing the conflict itself.

Take the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s 1940 attempt to conquer Britain through air power.  Churchill said that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” so you would think it would a perfectly gripping novel. You glance at a back cover:

August 1940: Karl is a Spitfire pilot. He is just twenty years old, and het when the sirens sound over London each night his duty is to rush for his fighter and lift into darkened skies to combat the Luftwaffe pilots seeing to bomb Britain into submission.

This is a setting, but it’s not really a story. Even if the author has done lots of research into the dynamics of night fighting and prop fighter planes, there’s nothing here to tell us why we should keep turning that pages. Where is the conflict? Is it the conflict between the Nazi and British air forces? We already know that the British won. And although Karl is taking part in that struggle, whether he shoots down a dozen Messerschmitts or goes down himself in flames, Karl is not likely to be the decisive figure in whether the Battle of Britain is won or lost. The battle itself is too big a conflict to provide the story. Maybe this would be a good novel, maybe not, but we have no way of knowing from the above description because it doesn’t describe any actual story conflict to us.

Now how about this one:

August 1940: Twenty year old Karl is one of the few, the young men who jump into Spitfires and Hurricanes when the air raid sirens wail, roaring into the sky to fight the Luftwaffe.  But under his RAF blues lurks a secret, and when a stranger with a shabby grey suit and a suspicious accent is seen asking for him around the base, he’s afraid it is about to be revealed.

His RAF papers list him as Karl Howard, but he was born Karl Habicht in East Prussia.  Karl last saw his uncle Walter in 1934 when Walter vanished into SS custody, accused of ties to Stalin’s Russia.  Now this stranger claiming to be from occupied Poland brings him a message: Walter Habicht is working for a communist faction hunted by both the Nazi’s and by Stalin’s NKVD.  Uncle Walter needs a place to hide, and he has smuggled information about a German radio technology which may explain how German bombers are able to reach their targets in the dark with such deadly accuracy.

By taking in Uncle Walter, Karl could help win the war, or he could expose himself as an enemy alien and a communist sympathizer in a country gripped by fear.

This isn’t just a setting, it’s a story. Karl is no longer just a single person swept up in a historical conflict much larger than he. Now he has personal stakes: A hidden identity, an unwelcome stranger, a lost uncle, espionage. He can help his cause, but he risks revealing a past which will make him a hated stranger. These are all much smaller conflicts that the Battle of Britain as a whole, but they have stakes which directly touch on Karl and which he himself can resolve through his choices. If the other pitch was really just a setting, this one is a story. We don’t know how this small scale conflict will end, and it’s one which touches directly on the things that Karl cares most about.

All compelling historical novels work at these two levels, having both a setting which provides for exciting history, and also a smaller scale conflict which creates stakes for the individual character[s] in the novel. A well done historical novel picks individual conflicts for the characters which serve to further explicate the greater historical events playing out on the world stage, allowing the reader to see those themes play out in small within the character arc of the story.

Oh, and Karl?  Feel free to figure out his story and write it. I’m a World War One guy myself.

Many thanks for being on the blog today, Brendan, and for sharing your insights on historical fiction.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Share this post

About the Author

Picture of Meet M.K.Tod

Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

All Categories

Subscribe to the Blog

Receive the latest posts on writing and reading historical fiction via email.

Join 2,205 other subscribers

4 Responses

  1. Nice article, Brendan. Good job. I read your Chapter One and definitely felt the influence of Tolstoy in your work. It seems you’ve been reading heavily from that period and are able to incorporate that feel it into your novel. Obviously, in order to submit your novel to a literary agent you will have to seriously cut down from 264,000 words to something like 120,000 words max. Congratulations, you’ve entered the “kill your darlings” phase of novel-writing, where you cut out all the unnecessary parts and mold and shape the rest into a work of art. I highly recommend you pick up “The First Five Pages” by Noah Lukeman. It’s enormously helpful in crafting the opening of your novel, because those first five pages are the most important pages you will ever write:

    1. Sophie,

      Thank you, both for the kind words on the post and also reading and responding to the first chapter.

      There is definitely a lot of revision to be done and I’ll take a Lukeman’s book. Another one that I found very helpful a while back was Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel.

      Right now my goal is to try to shorten the length by 10% via revision and pitch it as a high word count historical epic on the model of Follett’s Fall of Giants trilogy or Jeff Shaara’s big war novels. With five occasionally intersecting characters and plotlines, that gives each character under 50k in space.

      But that will definitely be a marketing challenge and I’ll have to see where things go from there.

Leave a Reply