Yay! I’m happy to be back at WHW as a Resident Writing Coach. *waves* Last time I visited, we discussed how understanding the interconnectedness of our story elements can help us with revisions, and today we’re going to dig deeper into one of those elements: our story’s stakes.
Stakes are simply the consequences of failure. If our character doesn’t reach their goal, what will happen? What can go wrong?
Low stakes—such as when there are no consequences or failure would be no big deal—can create problems with our story’s conflicts, tension, and pacing, as well as weaken motivations and make goals seem less important.
So we definitely want to follow advice like “Raise the stakes throughout your story,” but how do we do that?
Step #1: Check for Goals
We all know that our protagonist should have a goal (or at least an unconscious longing) in every scene, right? But we’re not referring to just a big-picture story goal like “beat the bad guy.” Rather, scenes should also have a specific, immediate goal.
For example, the character wants to…:
- get the job
- help a family member
- reassure a friend
- avoid trouble
- win the bet
- arrive on time
- prove their competence
- beat the rush-hour traffic, etc.
Step #2: Identify the Cost of Failure
Without consequences for failure, readers have no reason to care about or root for a certain outcome—any will do. So we have to identify what the negative consequences are if the character fails to reach those goals.
However—unlike goals—stakes don’t have to be immediate. Humans often act to avoid imagined trouble—think of parents who try to get their baby into a certain day care center because they believe that will lead to a good school, college, job, and lifelong success for their adult child years in the future. *smile* Our characters can behave the same way.
Stakes could be a specific failure to reach the goal (doesn’t get the job), or they could be a general risk, threat, fear, etc. of related failure (my child won’t be a successful adult). Stakes can be anything that motivates our character into acting to avoid the feared situation becoming reality.
Step #3: Ensure the Cost Increases during the Story
Ever wonder what counts as increasing stakes? Are stakes less than life-and-death too weak? Or if the protagonist is at risk of death, how do we increase the stakes from there?
Judging stakes as strong or weak all depends on context. In one story, not getting a job could be devastating. In another story, that failure could simply mean the character doesn’t get the prestige of a promotion.
In other words, it’s up to us as the author to sell the idea of how strong a stake is. A self-sacrificing type of character might think the risk of death is no big deal, but if the next scene shows their loved one at risk, that could be a huge increase in the stakes even though it’s not about them anymore.
“Raising the stakes” refers to how close the cost hits to home for that character. How much would failure “attack” their sense of self, who they are or want to be?
Why Is It Important to Raise the Stakes?
Characters might not be as eager to take the story’s journey if they knew all the obstacles ahead of time. The stakes are a way to force characters not to give up or walk away in the face of a story’s increasingly difficult conflicts and obstacles.
Also, at their heart, stories aren’t about plot. Rather, the plot reveals who the characters are.
The plot’s rising stakes force characters to make riskier and riskier choices. By the end of the story, they’re doing things they never would have imagined they’d do at the beginning of the story, and readers get to see the character’s essence, as they’re stripped down and vulnerable.
Other Tips for Using Stakes in Our Story:
- Stakes don’t have to increase every Some scenes can reinforce stakes, reminding readers of the risks. Or scenes can deepen stakes, with the character becoming more involved with the same risks.
- Subplots have their own consequences, which might be lower than the stakes of the main plot. That means stakes might decrease from one scene to the next if the story changes focus to a subplot. However, within each subplot, the stakes will
Subplots are often a good place to let our characters fail completely with no opportunity to “fix” the situation. Dealing with the consequences of a subplot failure can maintain the story’s tension in the middle act, and our protagonist’s failure in one situation can make the other stakes seem more possible too.
How do you raise the stakes in your scenes?
Muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.