Stakes are what are at risk in a story. It might be that the protagonist’s life is at risk, or perhaps a romantic relationship, or maybe the opportunity to go on a long-awaited trip (Hello, Covid!). But I find this definition a little vague. So I prefer to think of stakes as potential consequences.
Stakes are significant things that could happen, and they include a sense of cause and effect. Typically, you can fit stakes into an “if . . . then . . . ” statement (even if it’s not literally written as one in the text):
“If I don’t defeat [the antagonist], then he’ll hurt my family.”
“If you become a vampire, then the only thing you’ll love is blood.”
“If we don’t keep moving, then dehydration will kill us.”
Great stakes are closely related to tension and hooks. All three get the audience to look forward and anticipate what could happen, usually by getting the audience to hope or fear a potential consequence. The audience then has to keep reading to discover the actual outcome.
For many writers, stakes can be difficult to get on the page specifically because they require the writer to brainstorm possible, future outcomes–some of which may not actually happen.
For example, say your characters are stranded in a desert. They decide if they don’t keep moving, they could die of dehydration. But perhaps, in reality, it turns out if they had stayed put, they would have been rescued. Stakes aren’t always about what actually happens. They are about risk.
In most stories, you’ll want to include more stakes than what actually happens. Sometimes, it’s hard to brainstorm enough of those, so here are some tricks.
1. Look at both positive and negative potential consequences.
When it comes to stakes, we often focus on the negative . . . because that is what is at risk.
“If [the protagonist] doesn’t defeat [the antagonist], [the antagonist] will take over the world.”
But putting positive outcomes on the page can sometimes be just as effective.
“If Samantha can nail this audition, then she can finally star in a movie.”
In this example, a positive potential consequence is what is at risk. Sure, we could change it to a negative–if she doesn’t nail the audition, she can’t star in a movie. But by considering both positive and negative, we are more likely to brainstorm new stakes.
2. Add to the cause-and-effect trajectory
Once you have one stake on the page, you can often add more to it, by taking the cause-and-effect trajectory out further. Suzanne Collins does this well in the opening of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
If the protagonist can’t eat cabbage soup, then he can’t get his stomach to stop growling (consequence #1), which means people will realize he’s poor, not rich (consequence #2), which means his reputation will be ruined (consequence #3), which means he’ll lose his opportunity to be a mentor through his school program (consequence #4), which means he’ll unlikely be able to meet the credentials needed for college (consequence #5), which means his family won’t be taken care of (consequence #6), which means his cousin might have to succumb to prostitution (consequence #7).
That’s a lot that hinges on cabbage soup. Suddenly that soup feels pretty important.
3. Consider broad potential consequences
Another helpful approach is to look at how a potential consequence can have broader ramifications.
This works even with personal matters.
“If Jasper doesn’t return Emily’s love with a proposal, her descendants may be doomed to live in poverty.”
Here, something personal, love, has been broadened to include a family line–all of Emily’s children.
“If George doesn’t get to water, he could die of dehydration, which means his evil uncle could take the throne.”
Here, the protagonist’s possible death affects a whole kingdom.
4. Consider personal potential consequences
A reverse of this is to make potential outcomes more personal.
“If I don’t defeat the antagonist, he’ll take over the world–my mom, dad, Frankie, my entire hometown won’t survive.”
This goes from broad to personal.
5. Pull in other plotlines
In most stories, there are multiple plotlines: primary, secondary, tertiary, etc.
One way to brainstorm more stakes, is to try to connect the current situation to an indirect stake, like one from another plotline.
Say in one plotline, the protagonist is concerned about training her dog. In another, she’s trying to get her love interest’s attention. You can look for ways to connect them with stakes.
“If she can’t get her dog trained, then Fido might chase after the love interest’s car–earning her the wrong kind of attention.”
6. Look at perceived threats
Sometimes a perceived risk works well. Meaning, the character thinks something is at risk, when it isn’t.
Perhaps you are writing about a child who thinks if she lies to her teacher, she’ll go to jail. This is obviously not true, but to her, it’s a possibility.
When perceived threats are written well, they can feel real, even when the audience knows they aren’t. Just make sure not to only use this kind.
September C. FawkesResident Writing Coach
September C. Fawkes has worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author and writing instructor, and now does freelance editing at FawkesEditing.com. She has published poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction articles, and her award-winning writing tips have appeared in classrooms, conferences, and on Grammar Girl. Visit her at SeptemberCFawkes.com for more writing tips, and find her on
Twitter ǀ Facebook ǀ Instagram ǀ Tumblr
With these six approaches, you should be armed to brainstorm more, significant stakes. To learn more about stakes, you can read my other article on them here.