Raising the Stakes

Raise the stakes. The stakes aren’t high enough. This story lacks oomph. Have you heard any of these lines before? Was it in regards to your story? Yikes. If that’s the case, you need to understand how stakes work.

But, what are stakes? They’re the fear factor of the story. They affect the suspense, conflict, and impact of the plot. Why are the characters doing what they’re doing? What will happen if they don’t do this? What will they lose? Often, authors use the life or death of the protagonist or that of someone they care for as stakes. But, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the outcome affects the world. For example, catch the villain, destroy the virus, or everyone will die. And other stories focus on intimate stakes. If a character doesn’t achieve his goal, he’ll be miserable or devastated.

So, what are stakes really about? Goals. Without them, your character wanders around doing things for no reason. There are no consequences and no rewards for what he’s doing. And therefore, the reader doesn’t care about him.

But the stakes need to be important to the character. If Sean needs to keep Kathy safe from a mob hit because that’s his job, then his job needs to be important to him. What will happen if he loses it? Of course, you can go a step further with this and have him develop feelings for her. Now, the stakes have just increased because if he fails to keep her safe, not only will he lose his job but the love of his life, too.

The next time you hear that you need to raise the stakes in your story, you’ll know this means your protagonist doesn’t have a strong enough goal or his goal isn’t properly motivated. But, you’ll need to dig deeper if you’re going to raise the stakes. The protagonist’s goal must follow him throughout the story and after each failed attempt at achieving his goal, his need to reach the unattainable becomes stronger.

Now, go back to your WIP and double check if your stakes are high enough. Even if you think they are, can you possibly make them higher? Can you punish your poor character even more? Always ask yourself, “What does my character have to lose?” Then, make him lose it (only to regain it later, at the end of the novel) or force him to fight so he doesn’t lose it—whatever “it” may be.

Lynnette Labelle