Raising the Stakes: Lessons from H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau

I recently finished reading H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. I wanted to read to read it because, for one reason, it’s a classic piece of science fiction, so, you know. It’s worth a look if you’re a science fiction writer. Which I am. But I was also interested because I have my own Doctor Moreau – I named him before I ever heard of Wells’ Moreau, and I’ve been curious about the book ever since I was first told of it.And it was great! I was both surprised and impressed with how much it read like a modern novel. I definitely intend to read more of Wells’ work. One thing that I was especially impressed with was his ability to raise the stakes, which is what we’ll be talking about in this post.

Raising the Stakes (2)

You know those charts that kids have to fill out in elementary school about the typical structure of a novel? The ones with the rising action, climax, and falling action? Something like this.

plot diagram (1)
Photo Credit: The Book Thief
Jason Bourne movie poster. Photo credit: Wikipedia

I’m going to make a confession. These charts baffled me for a long time, and I think the reason they were so confusing to me is that the phrase “rising action” is sort of misnamed. “Rising action” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with actual “action” in a story. In some stories, sure. I can’t imagine a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie that doesn’t get progressively more action-packed as the story goes on, but just because characters aren’t running around punching people doesn’t mean the “action” isn’t “rising.” Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t exactly pull a gun on Wickham and threaten him into marrying her sister, but we still love the story. Why? Because there are other ways to reach the climax, and H. G. Wells does an excellent job demonstrating one way in The Island of Doctor Moreau by gradually raising the stakes as he makes life more difficult for our main character.

Elizabeth Bennet and her father in Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

I won’t explain the entire story, but suffice it to say that our protagonist, Edward Prendick, is rescued from shipwreck by Doctor Montgomery, who is the assistant of the notorious Doctor Moreau, and brought to Moreau’s island. Once on the island, Prendick discovers that Doctor Moreau has been experimenting on animals, trying to turn them human, but that he hasn’t quite gotten the process right yet, and the resulting creatures are feral, quasi-humans with strong animal-like tendencies. Some of the creatures are more violent than others, but Moreau, Montgomery, and Prendick are fortunately armed with whips and guns and the creatures are under the belief that Moreau is some kind of a god.

Well, it isn’t an interesting story if nothing goes wrong, which is probably where our “rising action” really begins. One day, Moreau is killed by one of the creatures with more violent tendencies. This is Prendick’s first problem, because the animals generally believed that Moreau was a god, and now that they’ve seen him get killed, they start suspecting that Montgomery and Prendick are both kill-able as well (a concept which they had not before really fathomed). The next problem arises when Montgomery, an alcoholic, drinks himself into a stupor over the death of Moreau and the anticipation of returning to civilization, and gives alcohol to the creatures. Not surprisingly, they kill him too. Things continue to worsen when Prendick realizes that Montgomery, just to spite him, burned the small boats that Prendick had hoped to use to escape the island. That’s pretty much when I thought things couldn’t get worse for our hero, but Wells proved me wrong. It turns out, when Prendick rushed to aid Montgomery just before his death, that he accidentally knocked over a lamp, causing the only house on the island to burn to the ground, along with all the food, ammunitions, and provisions inside it.

So now Prendick finds himself alone, without provisions or shelter, on an island in the middle of the ocean, with a bunch of semi-intelligent quasi-humans, many of whom are bent on killing him. (And, did I mention his arm is also broken?)

IslandOfDrMoreau (1)

If you want to know how he gets out of the situation, you’ll have to read the book. I’m not going to spoil the whole thing. But one thing to note here is that, although we have people dying and stuff burning, there isn’t actually a lot of true “action” going on here. At least, not in the usual sense. Prendick isn’t physically present for any of these events. Moreau and Montgomery both die off-stage (well, Montgomery is mauled off-stage and then dies quietly in Prendick’s arms), and the burning boats and house are so far away from Prendick that he can’t do anything about either of them. The “rising action” here is better described as “raising the stakes,” or maybe an even simpler way of saying it would just be, “making the situation worse for the main character.” Because that’s really all we’re doing. “Rising action” just means that either the character has more on the line, or that her goal is more difficult to reach. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with action. Here, we’re talking about making Prendick’s goal more difficult to reach.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Prendick’s goal is simple: survival, and returning to civilization. With each event on our “rising action” mountain, that goal becomes more difficult to attain, and the stakes are raised. Let’s break it down:

  • First event: the death of Doctor Moreau.
    • Now the creatures know they could potentially kill Prendick.
  • Next event: the death of Montgomery and the burning of the boats.
    • Now Prendick can’t get off the island, at all, unless a ship happens to pass by (and we’ve already been told multiple times in the book that this is a rare event).
  • Finally: the house burns down.
    • Now Prendick has almost no way of sheltering himself from the animals, or even finding food to eat.

As a reader, we’re looking at Prendick’s situation and saying, “Sorry man. You’re toast. I have no idea how you’re going to get out of this.”

And that’s exactly what you want your readers to be saying! This is the big question that will keep them turning pages. How is the protagonist going to reach her goal?

Next time you pick up a book, ask yourself what the protagonist’s goal is, and then pay attention to how the author is making things more difficult for her. You might be surprised how often raising the stakes does not involve waving guns around and punching people.

Where else have you seen this concept? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Don’t forget – keep writing!

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