How Stakes Set up Expectations

Last time I coached on Writers Helping Writers, I talked about 6 Tricks to Layer on Stakes, in it, I explained how I like to think of stakes as potential consequences–what could happen if a certain condition is (or is not) met. For stakes to be most effective, they usually need to be specific and often on the page. They should follow a cause-and-effect trajectory. 

Usually, we want more stakes on the page than what actually comes to pass.

One thing that stakes do, is they set up the reader’s expectations. They may not always be 100% solid expectations, but they set up expectations more or less. 

Because if Suzy accidentally left her campfire going, then I would expect that it could start a forest fire. That is a logical outcome. Depending on how this is rendered in the story and what’s happening in the plot, and what I, the reader, have read and seen in other stories before, I may fully expect that to happen next: Suzy’s campfire will start a forest fire. 

Now that my expectations are set up, the author can play with them, if he or she desires.

Stakes are what might happen, not necessarily what actually happens. When you set them up as a writer, you have a few options on how to handle the actual outcome.

The situation leads to the expected problem:

  1. Suzy’s campfire does start a forest fire.

The situation leads to no problems:

2. The campfire peacefully burns out, and it rains that night.

The situation leads to a problem worse or bigger than expected:

3. The campfire not only starts a forest fire, but burns up a few homes, and the state park.

The situation leads to a surprising outcome:

4. The campfire attracts a bigfoot.

Good writers will take advantage of these different outcomes (whether the writer is fully conscious of doing that or not). 

Be careful of using option 2: The situation leads to no problems. If you use that too much, you run the risk of undercutting the tension in your story. This is when the writer cuts threads of tension, so that there is no tension in the story for a period of time, or when the writer repeatedly fails to deliver on promised conflict.

The point is, when you work with stakes, you set up expectations in the audience. This is a good thing, because it helps the audience get invested in the story (unless you are only setting up expectations that are totally predictable). Once they have expectations, they’ll want to stick around. And you, the writer, can meet them, surprise them, or over-deliver on them. And yes, sometimes, undermine them too (only on occasion, and only when you have plenty of other important forms of stakes and tension in play).

So think about what your audience is expecting from your story’s stakes. And if you are only using one or two of these types of outcomes, try to switch it up to keep your readers surprised.

September C. Fawkes

Resident 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
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ANGELA ACKERMAN
Admin
1 month ago

One thing I love is when the author plays with expectations. Movie or book, it is great when I expect A but get B. It keeps the story fresh, no matter what genre. Great post!

September C. Fawkes
1 month ago

Yes, I love it too! It definitely keeps me interested.

NetRaptor
1 month ago

Ooh, that’s a good one. I really like the bigfoot one. That sets up expectations, but then has something happen out of left field. Suspenseful, but also a little less predictable.I read a book once where the tension strings were repeatedly snapped. Including one where the girl is riding along and OH NO something happens and she is knocked backward! Turn the page and oops she fell off her horse because she’s a bad rider. I closed the book and didn’t go back. :-p

September C. Fawkes
1 month ago
Reply to  NetRaptor

Yikes–stories like that can be so disappointing. But yes, it is fun to pull in something out of left field.

BECCA PUGLISI
Admin
1 month ago

This is such good stuff, September. I’ve never really thought about the relationship between stakes and expectations, but it’s definitely there!

September C. Fawkes
1 month ago
Reply to  BECCA PUGLISI

Thank you! Yeah, I don’t think we talk about it enough.