Stakes: How James Patterson does it

A couple weeks ago we looked at how master novelists write one-line synopses.  One of them really emphasized stakes, so I picked that one to read with an eye for developing, heightening, and deepening stakes.

Ladies and Gents, I give you: some of the stakes in James Patterson’s Hope to Die.


(Spoiler Alert)

1. Patterson makes us care about the character.

The main character in Hope to Die is Alex Cross, a DC cop with moral fiber. (And so we care).  Mr. Patterson introduces us to Mr. Cross by way of him coming home with his family after a baseball game. (He’s a nice guy with a nice family. We care.)  His family home has been under construction–they’re upgrading. (They care, so we care.) But when he gets home, the renovation is complete, and on the fridge are pictures of the family members, all murdered. (What an undeserved misfortune; we care.)  It turns out this is just a dream, but it is true that the whole family (5 people is worse than just 1; heightened misfortune; we care) has been missing for several days (chances of recovery diminish over time; that complicates things; we care).  Cross’s missing family forms the crucible: neither Cross nor the bad guy can walk away from this problem until Cross’s family is found.

Further, Patterson deepens the stakes that come from caring about the character by continuously finding ways to show us how other characters care about Cross and his family.  For instance, Patterson uses a new detective who doesn’t know Cross to elicit other characters’ feelings about Cross (he’s great and doesn’t deserve this; we should care), about their past interactions with his family members (allowing us to get to know his family and fear more for their safety), and to reiterate the horribleness of what has happened to them (and make us hope for a happy ending).

2. Patterson makes the character care.

He makes us care about what happens to Cross and his family by showing that Cross cares about his family. The second Cross scene shows Cross smelling his wife’s clothes, his Nana Mama’s lavender, his kids’ rooms, and then really falling apart because his oldest son is away at school.  He can’t remember how he smells.  He misses them; he cares. Cross apparently has been pretending not to notice the bad guy’s cameras in his house, but now Cross yells at the bad guy through the cameras, breaks them, and then pulls himself together and gets on with the business of finding his family.  He cares, and he’s tough.  So we care.

Mr. Patterson also makes us fear the bad guy.  In the opening scene, Patterson shows us what the bad guy cares about, and what the bad guy’s goal is by having the bad guy address the audience at his book signing:  “How hard is it to imagine a noble detective brought low by the horrors of his job?  How hard is it to imagine him abandoning God?  How hard is it to imagine him so beaten down by events that he finds life meaningless, valueless, and hopeless to the point that he becomes an existential monster and a perfect killer himself?”  We know the bad guy has Cross in mind, and we don’t want Cross to end up like this.

Further, in the bad guy’s next scene, he kills someone, so we know he’s totally capable of killing Cross’s family.

Patterson also deepens our investment in Cross by making Cross’s missing-family problem a kind of formative event do-over.  As Cross explains: “Every woman I’d ever loved had ended up dead or so traumatized by the violence woven through my life that she couldn’t bear the sight of me.  My first wife, Maria died in a drive-by shooting…. A madman took Ali’s mother hostage….”

3. Patterson makes succeeding and avoiding failure both matter more to the character.

Just 15 pages into the story, a woman is found dead and mutilated, and she’s wearing Cross’s wife’s jewelery.  Talk about an early demonstrative bite of what’s at stake.  Cross has four more family members left, and Patterson has Cross remember their happy times every so often to deepen the stakes.

Later, making matters even worse, Cross learns his wife was pregnant, and a teenager with his son’s personal effects also turns up dead.  Now he’s got only three family members left.

Halfway through the story, Cross learns there may be a chance both his wife and oldest son are still alive. The bodies found with his family’s stuff were other people killed in their place (which gives the story public stakes; Cross and his family aren’t the only one’s traumatized by Cross’s problem).  Stakes rise because Cross has been given a second chance; he can’t fail them this time.

Later still, Cross learns that an author Cross once asked for help in finding his family is actually the guy who took them.  Cross has been duped; he’s known the bad guy all along.  Stakes raised to get the guy.

Finally, in the moment of Ultimate Stakes, Cross has found where his family is being held and he knows the bad guy is with them:  “Sure that this was the endgame, I lowered the binoculars and closed by eyes to summon all my smarts, strength and determination.”  But Patterson doesn’t stop torturing Cross (or us) just yet:  “But then my phone buzzed, alerting me to a text: You are tenacious, Cross, but far too slow for your own good. I couldn’t wait any longer. Your family? They’re all d…

I don’t know about you, but I turned the page.

4. Patterson makes things harder for the character.

After the wife-a-like is found, Patterson makes one of Cross’s allies an antagonist:  The Chief tells Cross, “Alex, for your own good, and because I respect you so much, I’m placing you on medical leave.”  Chief takes Cross’s gun and his badge.  He’s off the case.  And he’s expected to go to the doctor for a check-up, but Cross ditches his escort/partner/friend to continue searching, only now he searches for his family on his own.

But Patterson doesn’t stop there.  There’s a new detective on the force who doesn’t know Alex Cross, and she treats him like most people treat the spouse of a dead person: with trouble-causing suspicion.

Eventually Patterson raises the stakes by making Cross deal with a Dilemma:  The bad guy tells Cross, either you kill someone and videotape the evidence for me and I’ll set one of your family members free, or you don’t, and I kill one.  How will Cross choose between his own loved ones and someone else’s?  How will he get out of this?

Patterson continues to take away Cross’s means of success:  Just when Cross thinks he might have a break, that a surveillance camera might have caught the bad guy’s accomplice on tape, he waits around to meet with the store owner only to learn that the tape has been erased.

Patterson continues with the mean, at one point making the whole world conspire against Cross:  When the bad guy tells Cross he’s got until 4am to make it to Louisiana, Cross starts driving in the dark, in the pouring rain.  Just a few minutes into his drive, still in the middle of nowhere, a car knocks him off the road and into a swamp. His phone is dead. He loses his shoes and his socks trying to get out.  And no one will stop to help the dirty shoeless guy.  And he’s late, late, late to save his family!

Finally, in the climax, on a shipping barge, Cross has found his family in a terrible state, but alive, and he’s got the bad guy right where he wants him.  And yet the obstacles just keep coming: The ship’s captain, who Cross believed didn’t know anything about his missing family, shows up with a gun to help the bad guy.

5. Patterson picks the right time for things to get worse.

Patterson’s got great timing:

The best time to take the reader low is after they’ve been high:  Patterson tells us Cross’s family is missing right after he shows them all happy, coming home after enjoying a baseball game together.

And the best time to take the reader high is after the character has hit rock bottom:  After Cross waits around for surveillance footage of the accomplice that turns out to have been erased, he mopes back to his car with no leads and no direction.  But wait!  The new detective has tracked down Cross, because–guess what!–his family may still be alive!  And, to top it off, one of his son’s friends shows up with a picture of the accomplice on his phone.  There’s still hope after all.

And the best time to have the world conspire against the character is when he has a plan and tight deadline.  Right when Cross gets his directions from the bad guy to be in Louisiana by 4am to save his family, he gets in a wreck in the middle of nowhere and loses his car, his phone and his shoes.

How about you?  Have you read this book?  Where did you find Patterson established, heightened or deepened the stakes?


We’ll see what stakes we can come up with for our own premises.  Bring yours!

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