Like many writers, I have a few story ideas languishing in my files that I really like, but haven't been able to make work yet because they don't yet have an answer to the "who cares?" question: Why should the reader care about this person and this problem? Until I figure out a way to make the stakes personal, to make me care, those stories will stay languished.
I know I'm not alone in this, because I do a lot of critiques for a wide variety of very talented authors. The most common critical comment I make is about the stakes. What does this matter? Why should the reader care? I can see the stakes there in the story, but for the stories that aren't quite working yet, that's usually why. (At least for me). The stakes are functional, nothing more. You can slot any protagonist into the lead and nothing really changes.
As you create your stakes for your characters, don't just look at the plot side of things. Think about how those stakes affect your protagonist. Do you care about this character and what happens to them, or are you just running them through a gauntlet of problems to illustrate a plot idea? If it doesn't affect you to put them in danger and cause them trouble (either hurt you or make you giggle in glee), then why should a reader feel any more emotion?
If the protagonist walked away, what would change?
If the hero has nothing personal at risk, and can stop at any time with no personal repercussions, there's a good chance the stakes are low, even if they're high from a plot standpoint. "They could die" feels high, but if they walk away they'll live. Problem solved. Sure, others might die, but do readers really care about a faceless mass of unnamed people? Nah.
(Here's more on motivating your characters)
If you put the second-most important character in the protagonist's slot, what would change?
This one's a great test to see if the stakes are personal, because those close to the hero often have similar things at risk. If the story would unfold pretty much the same way, odds are the stakes still aren't personal enough. "The bad guys invade their home" is a more personal good start, but again, so what? Anyone who lives there has that same thing at stake.
(Here's more n raising the stakes by narrowing the focus)
What does your protagonist lose if they walk away from this problem?
It's not a stake unless you have something to lose. What about their life is going to change if they don't act? If it's something they can live with, think about how you can make it something they can't live with (or can't live without).
(Here's more on making readers care)
What sacrifice does your protagonist have to make for everything to turn out okay?
At some point in the story (typically during the second half of the second act) your protagonist will have to give something up to get what they really want. It's not uncommon to see the personal stakes shift to those larger "save the world" stakes, but at this point in the story, the larger-scope stakes feel more personal because of this sacrifice (so you can have those big stakes and still have the personal ones). A personal sacrifice serves the greater good, and the greater good issue allows the protagonist to get something they value more than anything else.
(Here's more on creating inner conflict)
Stakes make readers care, and stakes are all about personal loss. If there's nothing to lose, there's no point in playing.
If you feel it, then the characters will feel it. If the characters feel it, the reader will feel it. And then they'll care about what's at stake.
What's at stake in your novel? What are some of your favorite story stakes?
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl.
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