Friday, March 22, 2019

What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story

stakes, conflict, hooks
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

If readers don't care about your story, they'll never get past the first scene. 

Like many writers, I have story ideas languishing in my files that I really like, but haven't been able to make work yet because they don't 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. I do a lot of critiques for a wide variety of writers. One of the most common comments I make is about the stakes. Why does this matter? Why should the reader care? 

Often I can see the stakes in the story, but they're general and vast, so they don't make me care. The author could put any protagonist into the lead and nothing about the consequences really changes.

As you create 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?

Ask yourself:

If the protagonist walked away, what would change? 

stakes, protagonist, hooks
Forget it, man, I'm outta here.
If the protagonist 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)

However...some genres, such as thrillers or mysteries, have protagonists whose job it is to solve the crime. If they walk away, another cop/agent/soldier/professional whatever would step in and do the job. In these cases, it's more about why this person is the only one who can solve this problem versus the next name on the call sheet.

Whoever the protagonist is, if they decided to go home and let someone else pursue this problem, things should go horribly, horribly wrong. The problem needs the protagonist to solve it.

If you put the second-most important character in the protagonist's slot, what would change?

stakes, conflict, hooks
Don't worry, I got this.
This one's a great test to see if the stakes are personal, because those close to the protagonist often have similar things at risk. 

If the story would unfold pretty much the same way with any main character as the hero, odds are the stakes are still too general. 

"The evil wizard invades their village" is a more personal good start, but again, so what? Anyone who lives there has that same thing at stake. Any character in the story who loves in that village could do the job. 

But if the evil wizard is invading the village to capture the magically inclined little sister of the protagonist to use as a sacrifice, well, then that's a lot more personal.

(Here's more on three mistakes writers make with stakes)

What does your protagonist lose if they walk away from this problem?

This is a great test for worthy stakes. It's not a risk unless you have something to lose. What will change in the protagonist's life if they don't act to solve this problem? 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).

If nothing changes, and they lose nothing by ignoring the problem, and there's no consequence for not acting or resolving it, then why are they doing it? And a better question--why should readers read about it?

(Here's more on making readers care)

stakes, conflict, hooks
It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time. 

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) the protagonist will usually have to sacrifice something to get what they need. It's not uncommon to see the personal stakes shift to those larger "save the world" stakes now, but by this point in the story, the larger-scope stakes actually 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.

Sacrifice doesn't always means death though, so don't feel you have to kill a character off. It can be a sacrifice of ideas, dreams, possessions, love--anything the protagonist values. There's a price to be paid for victory and it must be paid.

Sacrifice can also be quieter and less "world-ending." In nearly every romance, each person has to compromise and sacrifice something about themselves in order to be happy with their love interest. In this genre, the sacrifice is usually giving up on a believe or trait that was actually keeping them from happiness, but the sacrifice is still made, and still valid. They don't always know that when they make it.

(Here's more on creating strong internal conflict for your characters)

Stakes help make readers care, and stakes are all about personal risk. If there's nothing to lose, there's no point in playing (or reading). 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?

*Originally published October 2009. Last updated March 2019.

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 Shifter, Blue 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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  1. I feel like I read this one through the cracks between my fingers, horror movie style. Thankfully, I think I'm good to go with my WIP!

  2. Good post. :)

    In my opinion, it's all about the characters. As a reader, if I don't care about the characters by a certain point, I have no reason to keep reading. And as a writer, I try to remember that reader viewpoint.

  3. This is my biggest criticism in a lot of books. The plot or the hook is amazing, but the author never revealed or upped the stakes. Awesome post!

  4. This post is totally on point. Yeah, readers need to care about characters, but high stakes do matter a lot.

  5. Thanks guys. And remember, high stakes doesn't always mean high action -- you can have high stakes and still have a quiet thoughtful book if that's your story. Of course, blowing stuff up is fun too!

  6. Brilliant blog post, Janice!

    I learned a lot about this exact thing, personal vs global stakes and how to make the reader care while watching the football series Friday Night Lights. I feel nothing for football but I cared so deeply about the characters in the story, I started cheering for the team to win the games. Totally character driven series that, and each character is brilliantly crafted.

    Now I just need to apply what I learned in my own stories...

  7. Great post, Janice, and timely! I got 25% done with current WIP when I couldn't ignore the fact that while my plot stakes were great, my story stakes were weak. I've had to go back and totally reevaluate the novel based on the stakes and start again. Hopefully I can re adapt some of the material I've written, but a lot of it is going to have to be redone. When I catch myself in a funk about it, I try to be grateful for seeing this NOW and not 90,000 words later. Sigh.

  8. I'm beginning revisions for a WiP so this is very helpful information that I'll reference as I go along. Thank you so much for sharing this info.

  9. I learned this important lesson when I read Plot & Structure. And now I pay more attention to stakes when I'm reading other books or watching movies.

  10. Xan, thanks! I've never seen that show but I hear amazing things about it. Sounds like a great example of this.

    Birgitte, been there :) It is better to catch it early. That's awesome you did though. Sounds like you're finally turning into a plot girl after all these years!

    Angela, most welcome! Good luck on those revisions.

    Julie, great book. I've really noticed how a lack of stakes has hurt a lot of movies for me. Sure, it's all done fine, but if I don't care, why bother?

    Traci, thanks!

  11. In the midst of writing a story that I think is great, I often stop to question the relevance. This is the crucial time when my stories either make it or don't. Usually they fizzle out right there. This can be a heck of a blow to my ego. I will print this post to keep for future reference. This was a terrific reminder Janice!

  12. what is the difference between this 'What does your protagonist lose if they walk away from this problem?' and this 'If the protagonist walked away, what would change?'

    aren't those personal stakes?

    1. What they'll lose is a personal consequence. They leave, their sister dies, or they lose their job, or they lose self respect, etc. Something that affects them personally that they don't want to have happen to them.

      What changes if they walk away is how important they are to the plot. If they can walk away and the story unfolds pretty much the same, that's a clue the protagonist wasn't doing anything to affect the plot. If they leave, the plot should change for the worse.

      One is more personal, the other is more global. If the protagonist can't walk away, then the stakes are indeed personal on a larger scale. If they can, then there are no real stakes (or they'd not be able to leave)

      Does that clear it up?

  13. I had just finished reading about query letters and the author mentioned that you need to include details about your story's stakes - and I promptly had a panic attack, quickly followed by a google search of "does my story have stakes?" - which, of course, led me here :) Which was like an emergency therapy session because, working my way through your questions, I realised that not only does my story have stakes, but that I love them. I'm going to post your questions (and my answers) into my MS file, so that I can remember them every time I write (which will also, hopefully, infuse them more deeply in the story and individual scenes). Thanks again for another great article!

    1. Awesome! Glad it helped on multiple levels :)

  14. Hi Janice, reading this article helped me but also confused me. I understand what you're saying and why it's important, but can you give some examples of stakes? Would you consider personal happiness to be high enough stakes? I'm still figuring out my MC, but it seems to be that, if he doesn't leave home, which includes leaving his brand new wife, he isn't going to find out what makes him truly happy. He will regret never choosing himself, essentially, because if he stays home then it means he's putting everyone else's desires before his own. His culture has a lot to do with this. Does that makes sense in terms of stakes? Do you think that is lacking anything significant in the way I have described it (given that it's a pretty vague example?) I am struggling to know what "good stakes" look like in my story^^

    1. Personal happiness can be something at stake, though it's usually represented by something tangible in a story. "Happiness" is too vague to really drive a plot (most times).

      Think about what he actually does and what price he'll pay for it. If he stays, what does he give up? "I want to be happy so I'm leaving" is hard to plot around, so it helps to have things the character strives for.

      For example, if leaving home will solve his problems and make him happy, all he has to do is walk out the door and not come back. Problem solved (short book). What are the things preventing him from doing that? What examples can you show that let readers see how staying would hurt him? What things can he struggle over as he weighs the pros and cons of leaving?

      Character arcs are internal, but plot arcs are external, so look for external things that cause those internal struggles. If his only reason for staying is that "he'll feel bad" that's not a very high stake. So what? People feel bad about things all the time. What's so bad about leaving that he'd risk his happiness to stay?

      Does that help?

    2. Yes, those are all really good things to think about. It isn’t so much “if I leave I’ll be happy” because there are people he cares about (and there are obstacles to the things he wants even when he leaves) but I’ve messed up his life to the point that nothing is how he’d imagined it would be *gleeful cackling here*.

      I want to have him leave home and search for his missing brother-I guess I just wanted it to be deeper than that, too. I wanted it to be an internal struggle, and looking for his brother is a way to show that he is trying to regain what he feels he lost. To stay would be gaining something, but to leave would also be gaining something. The problem for him is that either decision also means he has to lose something.

      It will probably be better to have him look for his brother, and in the process find the meaning he is unconsciously grasping for, too, instead of making the meaning the same thing. It's not enough yet, I am still working through it, but I will keep thinking about how I can make the stakes higher, for him personally AND for the plot :) Thanks!

    3. The search for the brother sounds perfect! Searching for something lost, the external goal totally mirrors the internal struggle. Tons of potential subtext and symbolism there.

      I love that you gleefully cackle over their misfortune :) A writer after my own heart.

  15. What about someone trying to save their city and all the people they love in it from a huge massacre happening.
    Oh, and they cnat contact the person they love so much

    1. A missing loved on is definitely a personal stake, and it fits into the larger stakes of the city in danger.

  16. I read through every comment, and Janice I must say this post was lovely.
    The comment about a protagonist searching for his brother, and so on... That got me thinking... What if a protagonists life has been so complicated that the only way out is to Die... Yea its horrible, but thats the only option to save his loved ones, who he has wronged so much. Does it still make him the lead character? And how high is the stakes, cos he has messed up big time, my readers actually think he is a joke :) (I laughed to this)

    Once again, great post!