By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Stakes are often misunderstood, especially when folks like me keep telling you to make them as high as possible. That can make you think that the only good stakes are ones in which the world is ending and there's a total disaster on the way. But high stakes do not equal high action. Stakes work best on an emotional level, because we need to care about what happens for them to have any effect. This is why thousands of people dying can feel boring, but letting a sister down can be gripping.
Stakes are the consequences of an action by the protag. What they're risking by acting. The more these consequences affect the protag personally, the higher the stakes will be. (there are exceptions, of course, but this is a good rule of thumb)
Low stakes are those where there is a consequence, but it doesn't change the life of the protag all that much. The choice being made doesn't change the story and the end result will be the same regardless of which choice the protag makes here. Common low stakes include decisions where either choice works for the protag, it's just a matter of which one will win. Like someone choosing between two potential loves, where either will make them happy. It's not about if they've made the right choice, but curiosity about what that choice will be.
Medium stakes are those where the consequence will change the life of the protag, but not in any long-lasting way. It'll have an effect on the bigger story, will probably make things a bit tougher, but failing isn't going to change the protag that dramatically. Common medium stakes include choices where the protag knowingly makes things tougher on themselves for the sake of something that matters to them. Like risking capture to rescue a friend. It's not about worrying if the protag will win, but how this choice is going to make things worse down the road.
High stakes have consequences that will severely change the protag's life. The decisions made have far-reaching consequences and failing here will change who that protag is. Common high stakes include choices where the protag must make a sacrifice about something they care deeply about. Like choosing to walk away from someone you love because it's the only way to save their life. It's about how that choice and the consequences of that choice will irrevocably change the protag forever.
Don't Go Too High Too Fast
Not every choice has to be high stakes. In fact, starting too high can hurt a story because there's nowhere to for the story to go. Tensions can't rise because the stakes can never increase, and escalating stakes is a sure way to suck a reader in. Mixing up the types of stakes is good, as it gives you the ability to pace your story so things keep getting worse and worse until the end. You want to save your biggest risk for the climax, and you want to build up to that. Waves of low to high stakes, peaks and valleys like a roller coaster.
Watch Out for Melodrama
Constant high stakes can also start to feel melodramatic after a while. If everything is always life or death, then nothing matters because the reader knows the protag isn't going to die. Using stakes where the protag can lose helps keeps things unpredictable.
Anything Can be High or Low Stakes
What makes something high or low stakes is how it affects the protag on an emotional level. The smallest, most mundane event can be devastating to the right person in the right circumstance. The largest, most horrendous event can be just another day at the office to someone who commonly makes those choices.
Stakes are like the emotional fuel of your story. They drive your protag to act. The more compelling your stakes, the more compelled your reader will be to see what choice your protag will make--and how it'll all turn out