The masters agree: stories most often fail because the stakes aren’t high enough. But there is plenty we can do to ensure lack of stakes doesn’t happen to our stories.
What are Stakes?
Although many masters discuss them, only a few actually define stakes:
- For Karl Iglesias, “Stakes are what your character has to win or lose;” they “are the consequences of a character reaching, or failing to reach, his objective.”
- Larry Brooks says stakes are “the consequences and price of success or failure and its ultimate effect on everyone involved.”
- And for Donald Maass, “Stakes say what could be lost.”
As for specific examples of stakes, the masters seem to be of one mind. High stakes include:
- “Life and death, everlasting love, the fate of nations” – Gary Provost
- “Life and death, big money, or the hero’s very soul” – Christopher Vogler
- “A family, a fortune, or some specific purpose in life” – Larry Brooks
Types of Stakes
Most of the following types of stakes overlap, but each type can tilt your view on a story just enough to uncover more stakes possibilities.
These are all of the reasons why it’s so important to the character to do the things he needs to do to reach his story goal right now.
Formative Event Do-over
This is some event in the character’s backstory that parallels, and provides mental complications for, his current problem, making this story a second chance, an opportunity to make up for whatever went wrong in the past.
Personal Stakes of Other Characters
There are characters who have their own reasons for wanting and needing the main character to succeed, and there are characters who have reasons for wanting and needing the main character to fail. Both increase the stakes as a whole.
James Scott Bell says that plot stakes are the “threat to the Lead character from the outside. Almost always this is in the form of another person trying to do the Lead harm–physically, emotionally, or professionally.”
The crucible is the bond that keeps the characters in conflict with one another; it is the reason(s) why it impossible for the characters to run away and necessary for the problem to play itself out. Masters Sol Stein, Lajos Egri, James Scott Bell and James Frey all mention the crucible.
The Demonstrative Bite
This is where, early in the story, the antagonist gives the main character a practical demonstration of just how badly the threat can hurt. Bonus points if the metaphorical bite out of the character adds a debilitating complication to achieving his goal in addition to confirming that the antagonist means business.
Public Stakes – Obstacles These are the outward circumstances not of the protagonist’s own making that pose obstacles and complications that make his problem worse. It includes the story world’s social trouble and dire conditions that rear their ugly head at the worst moment, as well as all the “just my luck” ways in which the world seems to be conspiring against the character.
Public Stakes – Consequences
These are the ways in which the outcome of the main character’s problem affects people and society and the world at large, beyond just those people who know the protagonist. It’s the ripple effect.
Character Stakes – The Dilemma
As Mr. Bell says, “Quite often this comes down to a matter of choice. By sharpening the horns of a dilemma, one can raise the stakes for the character.”
For Donald Maass, Ultimate Stakes is the story moment when the character commits irrevocably to resolving the problem; he becomes “more determined than ever to make a difference, to persist, to overcome all problems and obstacles.” He cares and is engaged with life, and he embraces this and uses it to push forward.
What’s really driving a person often isn’t fully conscious and understood; it’s just below the surface, driving a character without drawing his attention. It is the story journey that forces the character to notice that underlying motivation and embrace it (often during the moment of Ultimate Stakes), which gives the motivation, and the stakes as a whole, even more power.
What the character wants often evolves into a need. This can happen when the original goal deepens in meaning, in which case want and need merge and the original goal remains the end goal. Or this can happen when what a character needs trumps what he thought he wanted, and the goal changes completely.
How do I develop my story’s stakes?
Mr. Bell suggests: “Create a list of things that can go wrong for your character. Stretch yourself at this stage. Next, take your list of answers and sort them by their degree of trouble, from least to worse. As a general rule you want the trouble to increase as the story moves along. You now have a “stakes outline,” which can be used to invent scenes and turning points for your novel.”
1. Make us care about the character. We’ll get deeper into how to do this with a later tool (Reader-Character Bond), but for now I leave you with the words of Mr. Maass: “High stakes start with high human worth. . . . The reason we care about a character in mortal danger is that we care about that character, period.”
2. Make the character care. As Mr. Maass also says, “One cares because the protagonist cares. In other words, to the degree that your main character feels passionately invested in his own life, the reader will feel invested too.” To get at how much the character cares, consider the following prompts:
- How badly does the character want to achieve the goal?
- How long has he wanted to achieve it?
- Are there reasons why the character doesn’t want to do what he absolutely must do?
- Why does he have to do this now?
3. Make things harder for the character. Take away his means of success. Put more obstacles in his way. Make him struggle. Be mean. Mr. Bell proposes all sorts of questions to help us be mean:
- What physical harm can come to my Lead? How far can I take that threat?
- What new forces can come into play against my Lead? How would these outside forces operate? What tactics would they use?
- What other characters can I introduce that will make things worse?
- How can things get more emotionally wrenching for my Lead? Are there dark secrets from the past that can be revealed?
- What are the social aspects of the story that swirl around the characters? Are they dealing with some huge issue? If not, can you find one?
Mr. Maass adds:
- Who is the one ally your protagonist cannot afford to lose? Kill that character.
- What is your protagonist’s greatest physical asset? Take it away.
- What is the one article of faith that for your protagonist is sacred? Undermine it.
- How much time does your protagonist have to solve his main problem? Shorten it.
4. Make succeeding matter more for the character. He wants to achieve the goal for a reason to begin with, but, as Mr. Maass is known for asking, How can what is happening matter even more?
- What does the main character stand to gain if he succeeds?
- What beliefs does the character have a lot invested in? How can you test that belief? And yet keep reinforcing it?
- How is emotional and physical well-being for the rest of their life contingent on success of this goal, getting what they want or need? How is this their one chance?
- What reasons are there to hope?
- Can it be revealed that what’s at stake is bigger and more important than originally thought?
- Can you evolve the character’s goal from something he wants into something he needs?
5. Make avoiding failure matter more to the character. As Karl Iglesias says, “there should be dire consequences if the hero fails to achieve his goal.” Keep piling on more and more bad things that will happen if the character fails. Again, Mr. Bell gives us lots of good questions:
- What does the character stand to lose if he fails? Is that enough?
- Is there some professional duty at stake here? What’s the worst thing that can happen to my Lead’s career life?
- Is there someone the Lead cares about who can get caught up in the trouble?
- How can you make the danger more visceral? More skin-crawlingly imaginable?
- What reasons are there for the character to fear failure? to fear the threat?
- Can what’s originally at stake actually become worse and more important, as a result of the hero trying to solve the problem?
6. Pick the right time for things to get worse. As Donald Maass says, “Escalation of stakes is enhanced by sharp timing.”
- What would be the worst moment for things to get worse?
Comments and Cautions
Some additional advice from the masters:
Mr. Vogler warns us that a story in which the hero will only be slightly embarrassed or inconvenienced if he fails is likely to get the “So what?” reaction from readers. Make sure the stakes are high.
Mr. Maass reminds us that public stakes change with the times. Try to capture the mood of the times, of what’s important to contemporary readers, by being awake to life as it is around us. Our society’s tragedies and triumphs, our world’s pains and promises.
Noah Lukeman warns that “importance, we must remember, is relative.” A goal may be important and have high stakes under some circumstances, but not others, so consider what circumstances need to be in place to bolster a goal’s stakes.
Dwight Swain encourages us to “Give each person in your story something at stake–so much that he fights desperately.”
Mr. Iglesias reminds us that “Stakes are more compelling when relationships are involved.” So if you can make the bad guy an uncle or the victim a friend, you raise the stakes.
Bill Johnson reminds us to make sure we make what’s at stake visible and concrete.
Mr. Iglesias reminds us to remind our readers of the stakes throughout the story. It’s an additional injection of suspense, but also, if you lose sight of your stakes, you’ll eventually lose your audience.
People actively look for what’s important to other people, for why and if other people care. Characters too should probe other characters for what’s at stake.
Last, if you’re still having trouble coming up with you story’s stakes, Mr. Maass would prompt: What matters to you? What gift, treasure or right would it most devastate you to lose? What disaster would leave you feeling the most bereft, insecure, alone, shaken, fearful and lost?
Best Books on Stakes
I came across the first book listed after writing this post, which, thanks to said book, now needs a heavy update. Someday I’ll get around to doing one. Until then, if you need help with stakes, I most recommend the first one:
The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you. In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!
Well, that’s it for me
What about you? Know of any other goo stakes know-how? Tell us in the comments!
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Up next, on Wednesday
We’ll look at how James Patterson develops his stakes in his latest best seller. See you then!