Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Raise Your Novel's Stakes by Narrowing the Focus

stakes, tension,
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Making readers care about your story takes more than just creating likable characters. It take making those characters pay.

Stakes are critical to every story, because without stakes, readers have no reason to care about what's going on. As interesting as protagonist Bob might be, if nothing he does matters he won't hold interest for long. Even if he does intrigue readers at first, if nothing ever worsens for him, they'll get bored almost as fast. That's why it's so important to keep escalating the stakes in a story.

But escalation is only half of it. The other half, is making readers care about those stakes.

You might be tempted to open with lives in danger, the world about to end, or puppies and kittens in peril. As the adage goes, "Start with the action," and characters in dire straights says, "Look how important this is!" right away.


If you start a novel with the stakes too high, there's nowhere for them to go.You can't raise the tension or make readers worry more because they're already as worried as they can be. Whether or not Bob fails by falling off a cliff or missing a critical rendezvous doesn't matter much if the results are the same. There's nothing more for him to lose, and after a scene or two that shows he won't actually face those stakes, readers lose their threat.

Make your stakes personal to the characters readers care about

There's a great scene in the movie, The Core, where the pilot (Hilary Swank) is commenting on how hard a time she's having, because how could she possibly deal with trying to save the entire world. One of the scientists (Tcheky Karyo) says he's not trying to save the whole world. That's just too big. He pulls out a picture of his family and says, "I'm just trying to save three of them."


Suddenly the stakes become something we can all relate to and understand--risking your life to save the people you love. Your family. Your wife and daughters. We care more about that character after that, because he has such a personal stake in this situation.

What's even more fun about this example, is that we still don't care much about saving the world, because we know they're going to do that. Stories usually have a happy ending, especially movies like The Core. But now we feel connected to that scientist, and we know there's a chance he might not survive to go home to his family, which makes us worry all the more. 

The smaller focus makes the stakes higher and raises the tension.

raising the tension in a novel
Fair warning. Not everyone in this photo makes it out alive.

If your novel's stakes are too high, looks for ways to make them personal for your protagonist.

(Here's more on Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

Stakes hit hardest when characters actually have to face the consequences of their actions

On the first draft of my second novel, Blue Fire, the worst thing that could happen to my protagonist, Nya, was a possibility right from page one. Even though the story had a lot of action in it, it felt like readers were just waiting for the bad thing promised on page one to occur. Nya's situation was bad, but it never got worse, and that killed a lot of my narrative drive and made the early draft feel static--especially since when they did escalate, they got bigger, not more personal.

raising the stakes in a novel
So I stepped backed and looked at how that problem could affect her more personally, and how her problems could grow worse and worse into that. Instead of opening the novel with the "worst thing" problem in place, I let her actions take her there, and her decisions in the plot created the "worst thing" she had to face.

It's easy to forget about the stakes as you concentrate on making sure every chapter and scene ends with something to grab readers and keep them reading (especially on a first draft). Something is happening in the story, so it feels as though things are getting worse, but they might not matter to the character at all.

Double check your "oh no!" moments: Are they different and facing new risks, or just repeating something you've already done? If the risk in every problem is the same, and what's at stake is never truly at risk, it won't make readers worry about it.

Identify what's at stake if the protagonist fails their goal in that scene: "She won't be able to get to the exit" and "She gets trapped in the room" are pretty similar, so that could indicate your stakes aren't escalating, even if things are still technically going wrong. Too many of these with no escalation can make a story feel flat.

Look at your major turning points: Do things get worse at each of those moments? How about more personal? The protagonist should care even more about the consequences as the story races toward the climax. Stakes can also become more personal to the other characters in the story as well--if readers care about the character, they usually care about what matters and happens to them.

(Here's more on What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

Don't set your stakes too high too fast or too low

tips on creating high stakes in a novel
No really. I'm concerned. 
Too-high stakes are too abstract to care about. The fate of billions is hard to wrap your head around, so it doesn't feel personal enough to worry about. Do you really care about the fate of Middle Earth, or are you more worried about those two little hobbits? In fact, odds are you care more about the funny hobbits who just want to eat and wind up becoming heroes than the ones actually undertaking the heroic journey. Those characters could easily die at any time, so the risks are higher for them.

Too-low stakes will have readers yawning before they get to the good stuff. Offer readers a consequence that's worth their time, but is also something the protagonist can legitimately worry over without sounding like a crybaby. A total tizzy over something small feels like melodrama. Your protagonist might desperately need that cafe mocha, but if she doesn't get it, it's really not the end of the world. Just because a character wants something badly does not mean it's a solid goal with high stakes.

(Here's more on What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

In the vast majority of stories, the ending is not a surprise. The killer will be caught, the victim will be rescued, the world will be saved. That's just how stories work. Putting too much of the mystery on answering that question (will they or won't they win?) isn't usually a mystery at all. What keeps readers reading is seeing how it will unfold, and what price the heroes will have to pay to win. And that's where you can really have a great time with stakes. Because you can keep making that price higher and higher, and the personal consequence of paying it worse and worse.

What stories made you care and why? How personal were the stakes?

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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*Original published July 2009.


  1. Great post! Love the LOTR analogy...everything else can crumble as long as Frodo and Sam are okay. :)

  2. Great post on balancing the stakes right and taking a good look at what they really are :) I appreciate it. :)

  3. Great post, as always. I just keep learning stuff from you every single time! Cheers!

  4. When the stakes aren't really high, I don't feel like reading the book.. I just go to Wikipedia, find out the summary and forget the book!!!

    Thanks for sharing!!

    with warm regards

  5. I think that's part of what makes The Shifter so memorable. Nya's just trying to save her sister. Everything snowballs from there.

  6. One of those things I have to remember in my stories, showing there's something important at stake, but letting "it" get worse as time goes on, especially because of things my characters have done to try to solve the problem.

  7. Good post, Janice - deserves a tweet :)

    I agree with The Writing Goddes - I like when there is something important at sate and when it gets higher and higher every time. You just keep turning the pages as you absolutely have to make sure that the main characters gets safely wherever he/she's going.
    It's what the conflict in romatic fiction is all about - the stakes.

  8. All My Posts: LOL great comment. And great tip. I'll have to do that next time I read a ho-hum book. Easier than skimming it.

    Carradee: Thanks! I tried hard to make her trying to save "her world" vs "the world."

    The Writing Goddess: That sense of escalating stakes is critical. It doesn't always have to be huge increases, as long as stuff keeps moving and the stakes keep rising. And you can raise the plot stakes, the personal stakes, and the character arc stakes, so you have multiple options.

    Kate: Thanks! Tweets are always appreciated.