I’m currently taking a writing, blogging, and coaching sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.
Let’s raise the stakes! Keeping readers engaged in your story is, of course, paramount. And one of the easiest ways to ensure readers keep turning pages is to thread your novel with powerful stakes. Raising the stakes means making sure your characters always have something to lose.
For them, something important is at risk. And that risk can have a huge impact, heightening your story’s conflict, adding thrilling tension and suspense, revealing new truths about your characters, propelling their emotional journeys forward, and more!
But how do you go about building powerful stakes for your story? And how can you raise the stakes when your story seems to be running out of steam? Let’s dive in to today’s breakdown!
Begin by identifying your story’s core stakes…
Every story has core stakes, something your main character risks losing for nearly the whole of your novel. Nailing these core stakes is huge because without them you risk your plot reading like a series of unrelated events rather a cohesive and thrilling narrative.
That’s right: in many ways, the success of your story is staked on the success of your story’s stakes. Wrap your head around that for a moment, why dontcha?
Your novel’s core stakes are inherently tied to your main character. After all, they’re the ones readers will spend the most time with, so making sure that readers can jump into their shoes — or, at the very least, find their journey intriguing — is key.
That is why it’s imperative to know your main character inside and out. Before considering your novel’s stakes, I highly recommend working through my exercise on writing strong, well-developed characters.
Already done? Great! Let’s learn how to build your novel’s core stakes. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:
1. What does my main character want (e.g. happiness, revenge, forgiveness, love, etc)?
2. How does my main character plan to achieve this? In other words, what is my character’s story goal?
3. WHY does my main character want to achieve this goal? What’s their motivation?
4. How is the path to achieving this goal out of my main character’s comfort zone?
5. What does my main character stand to lose if they don’t achieve their goal?
6. How will my main character’s life, beliefs, etc. change for the worse if they don’t achieve their goal?
7. If my main character fails to achieve their goal, what are the consequences for those my main character loves?
But don’t stop there. After asking these questions about your main character, repeat this exercise (using the same questions) for your story’s antagonist. Doing so will help you create a realistic and complex antagonist whom readers can sympathize with, skyrocketing your story’s tension.
(If your story has no antagonist, don’t worry. It’s perfectly alright for your main character to be their own worst enemy. Completing this exercise will still help you create powerful stakes. Just make sure to pay extra attention to the emotional stakes outlined below.)
By completing this first step, you’ll craft a basic outline of your story’s plot and character arcs, naturally constructing the core stakes that will hook readers into your story and keep them intrigued for the long haul.
Next, raise the emotional stakes…
Your story’s stakes keep readers so well engaged because they appeal to your readers’ emotions and senses. Taking extra care to amplify these items throughout your story can go a long way in continuing to engage your readers on every single page.
Remember, your story shouldn’t solely be comprised of its core stakes. There should also be smaller stakes at play during individual scenes and chapters. Using emotional stakes during these moments can help flesh out your characters and add to your story’s suspense.
To begin building emotional stakes, you’re going to need to be cruel. This means putting your main character in situations that will compromise their security, and I don’t just mean in a physical sense. To raise the emotional stakes, begin by identifying these three factors:
What is your character afraid of and why? Move beyond physical fears (e.g. spiders, heights, the dark) and think about the emotional ones. Is your character afraid of dying alone? Of commitment? Of falling in love with someone who doesn’t love them back? Of losing their best friend?
Try to think of at least three emotional fears your character faces, then identify why it is your character is so afraid of these situations. What in their past has caused them to worry over these situations so deeply?
What are your main character’s worst traits? Are they quick to anger? Prideful or arrogant? Greedy as anything? Think about negative traits that your character is aware of, as well as those they aren’t. How do these negative traits hold them back from becoming the person they’d like to be?
Also, take the time to consider any traits that aren’t necessarily flaws, but that your character doesn’t like about themselves all the same (i.e. their shyness, bad sense of humor, lack of public speaking skills, etc).
#3: REGRETS AND REMORSE
Has your character done anything they wish they hadn’t? Or perhaps they wish they had done something they didn’t?
Try to think of at least two situations where your character felt regret or remorse, and consider how these experiences shaped them. Do they fear experiencing these situations all over again? Have these situations riddled them with guilt or shame?
Now that you have a strong understanding of who your character is at their worst, it’s time to be a little cruel. Begin brainstorming situations in which your characters will have to face these emotional hurdles, then work them into your plot.
Forcing your character far outside of their comfort zone, into situations where they must be brave and overcome or revert to the person they don’t want to be, will continue to keep your readers on the edges of their seats.
Finally, amplify your story’s tension…
One of the reasons why stakes are so important is because they create tension — a feeling of unrest that will keep your readers turning pages until the moment that unrest is resolved. Here are three easy ways to add additional unrest to your story that will heighten your stakes to a whole new level.
#1: THE TICKING TIME BOMB
The most classic stake-raising trick is to add a countdown to your conflict. In other words, if your character doesn’t achieve X in a certain amount of time, then big consequences will ensue. Nothing will make readers fly through pages faster than knowing your character will lose something huge if they don’t meet a deadline.
#2: SURVIVAL MODE
Another trick to raise your story’s stakes is to put your character in a situation that brings out their primal instincts.
Everyone wants to feel safe and secure, physically, financially, emotionally, and so on. By putting your main character — or those they love — in a position where they lack such safety and security, you’ll force your character into survival mode.
The consequences if your character doesn’t succeed are high, but readers also know that people in survival mode often make rash decisions. This heightens your story’s drama and suspense, keeping readers curious about what your character will do next.
In true Aretha Franklin fashion, respect — particularly as it concerns a person’s beliefs or reputation — means a great deal. When the very essence of your character is on the line, the stakes are high. Placing your character in a situation where they’re forced to question their beliefs or face the loss of their reputation, is an easy way to add instant tension to your story.
Remember, your story’s stakes are deeply entwined with your plot and characters, so it very well may be that you’ve already begun building your stakes without even realizing it.
That said, it’s always good to keep in mind the structure behind your story’s stakes so you can continue to intentionally heighten them as you write and edit. The hard work is always worth it when you wow your readers with a book they just can’t put down!