Ask an Editor: Ramping Up the Stakes
Last week, we took to the ol' interwebs to see what elements of writing craft the Twitterverse would like our editors to tackle, and we got some great responses!
I think stakes and ramping them up are a big struggle (wait, I *know* they are. 😉)— Lori Goldstein (@loriagoldstein) November 8, 2018
Thanks for the question, Lori!
Stakes are very important for your story. They tie your character to the plot and add tension for your readers.
When we are talking about stakes, we are asking “why?”
• Why does the character care?
• What will they gain from this action, scene, plan, or plot, assuming everything goes well?
• Or conversely, what will they lose if everything goes wrong?
• Basically, what’s at stake here for them?
The stakes can be huge: Your character’s life, a loved one’s life, the fate of the entire world or even the universe could be at risk. But they can also be more personal: a lifelong dream, a chance to find a better life, earning or losing the respect of a new friend. The important thing is to make sure that your character cares about whatever thing, place, person, idea, or goal your plot is putting at risk.
So, when you are trying to figure out your stakes, take a look at your story. Is it character driven? Then you need to figure out what the characters want and need and then set up an obstacle-filled path that they can follow to obtain that goal. It’s very important with this type of story to establish that the character has a chance of achieving their goal, if they work for it. We need to believe that victory is possible, and it must be clearly tied to the actions of the character. If the decision is out of the character’s hands, there’s no conflict, and thus no stakes. Stakes are the thing that drives your character to act.
But what if your story is plot driven? If so, take a long hard look at the things that your plot effects and figure out how to make the characters care about them. Ask yourself what is changing here. (Something must be changing, because without change there isn’t a story.) Is there an opportunity for characters to respond to that change in a way that helps or hurts them?
Are they invested in trying to keep things the same? If so, why? For example, let’s say your story involves saving the village. To establish the stakes here, you would need to show the reader how much your character values the people in this village and their way of life. Or are your characters eager for change? If so, why? Take the time to show us exactly what is wrong with their current life, so they as characters, and we, as readers, can be invested in getting them out of it! Think about Harry Potter’s life with the Dursleys and how much better Hogwarts is—even with the constant danger.
And your stakes can change over the course of the book. As the character’s grow and change, their goals can also shift. They can realize that they care more about rescuing their friends or saving their new romance than their previous goal of sabotaging their worst enemy.
Also, while every scene needs to have some kind of stakes, not every scene needs to have the fate of the entire world at stake. The fate of the entire world is sometimes a bit too much to care about for a whole book. Sometimes the personal goals and risks can be more powerful. Remember, the more your character cares about their goal or the thing that they are on the verge of losing, the higher the stakes are.
It all depends on the character and the situation. Just put yourself in the character’s shoes and figure out what’s really important to them in this moment. That’s where you will find your stakes.