Ask an Editor: The Importance of Stakes
Let’s talk about stakes. Not those delicious slabs of meat served up on grills over the summer. And not the wooden one used to fend off and kill vampires either. No, I mean story stakes—those super important elements that help keep your reader invested in your story.
If plot is what happens in a story, stakes are why do we care?
It’s not enough just to tell us what the characters are doing. We need to know why they're doing it and why it’s important. What happens if the character succeeds? What will they gain? Love, power, justice, acceptance, security? And what happens if they fail? What will they lose? Stability, respect, their chance at success, their life, the whole world?
Stakes help readers become emotionally invested in your conflict.You want to make sure that your readers understand how much is riding on this plan or decision. The world, or at least the part of the world that the character (and thus the reader) cares about, will be so, SO much better if things go according to plan, and so, SO much worse if they don’t.
Any time you feel like there isn’t enough tension in a scene, take a good hard look at what is at stake. Where is the choice, the moment of conflict? What is the challenge here? The gulf between success and failure is what creates the tension, and what keeps your readers turning the pages. As you’ve probably heard before, raise the stakes.
But be careful not to overreach. It’s easy to think: “the bigger the stakes, the more important the conflict.” But I think that sometimes the stakes get too high and too big. Have you ever heard the saying, "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic"? Sure, you know that the fate of the world is at stake, but that’s really big, and hard for your characters and your readers to grasp emotionally. It’s very difficult to feel that threat. But you can care about this person, this memory, this cherished place. Character A was a jerk, and we, as readers, want to see him pay for that. Character B is our favorite and we want to see them succeed and be happy. We HAVE to save the world, because this specific person that we love is on it.
It’s always stronger when the stakes are personal.
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