By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Stakes are critical to any story, because without stakes, why should we care about what's going on. As interesting as Bob might be, if nothing he does matters he won't hold our interest for long. Even if he does mange to hold our interest, if nothing ever changes we get bored almost as fast. That's why it's so important to keep escalating the stakes in a story.
Finding the right balance for this can be tricky though.
You might be tempted to open with really high stakes. It makes sense since it's always good to start with the action, and you want to say, "Look how important this is!" But if you start off too high, there's nowhere to go.You can't raise the tension or make readers fear 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.
I ran into this problem on the first draft of Blue Fire. The worst thing that could happen was a possibility right from page one, so even though the story had a lot of action in it, it felt like you were just waiting for the bad thing promised on page one to occur. Nya's situation was bad, but it never got worse. That really killed a lot of my narrative drive and made the story feel static.
So I took a step back and instead of opening the book with certain things already in place, I let them become obstacles Nya had to work around. She encountered them early on, and they provided problems that kept getting worse and moving her slowly toward the big bad I had waiting for her.
It's easy to forget about the stakes as you concentrate on making sure every chapter and scene ends with something to grab the reader and keep them reading (especially on a first draft). Something is happening so it feels like things are getting worse, but they might not be on a grand scale. Double check your "oh no!" moments and make sure that they aren't repeating something you've already done.
Looking at your stakes in a general way helps a lot in identifying this. When you have something go wrong or your protagonist needs to act, ask yourself what it means to your story. "She won't be able to get to the exit" and "She gets trapped in the room" are pretty close, so that could indicate your stakes aren't escalating, even if things are still going wrong.
Crazy as it sounds, you can actually set your stakes too high. The fate of billions is hard to wrap your head around, so it doesn't feel personal enough to really worry about. Do you really care about the fate of Middle Earth, or are you more worried about those two little hobbits?
Same goes for stakes that start too low. Starting off with your stakes too low will have readers yawning before they get to the good stuff. You want to offer readers a consequence that's worth their time, and something that the protagonist can legitimately worry over without sounding like a crybaby. A total tizzy over something small feels like the author is being melodramatic. 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.
If the stakes are too large, find a way to bring them down to a personal level for your protagonist. 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. You care more about that character after that, because he has such a personal stake in this situation. The really cool thing about this, is that you still don't care much about saving the world, because you know they're going to do that. Stories usually have a happy ending, especially movies like The Core. But now you feel connected to that scientist, and you know there's a chance he might not survive to go home to his family. A smaller focus makes the stakes higher.
That's actually a really good thing to remember with stakes. In the vast majority of stories, the ending is not a surprise. The killer will be caught, the girl 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?) steals the mystery away. 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 consequences of paying it worse and worse.