Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Up, Up, and Away! Raising the Stakes

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

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

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

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

Find out more about conflict 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. Getting the stakes right is so hard. I feel like I need much more study time. Thanks for the great blog. I so love all your rewrite, revision blogs. They have really helped me focus on the weak spots in my ms.

  2. Thanks for explaining this so clearly. Like you always do. I agree with Cat. You're so helpful and it's really helping me improve my manuscript.

  3. Great post Janice. I struggled a bit with trying to adapt varying stakes for a rather large cast. And like the others have said, your blog is very helpful toward the ol' ms. :)

  4. (de-lurking here.) This is a lovely post. I especially like what you said about raising stakes too fast, because that's something I feel like I need to watch out for. Thanks. :)

  5. Thanks for taking the time to contribute to other writers learning of the craft. It is very appreciated.

  6. Hey, a really well-timed article. I need to bear the stakes-idea in mind in my edits. I've never really thought of looking at each stake independently and seeing if they increase, etc. In fact, I've never much paid attention to the stakes at all. Thanks!

  7. Stakes are tricky for me for two reasons. One, I'm working with a traditional tale, so I'm following an established pattern, and two, (connected to the first?) I've been sitting next to the angst for ~4 years now, and have a hard time telling if the stakes are high enough.

    The upside is I'm inoculated enough I don't think I've got "nice writer" syndrome. (What? You're still breathing?)

  8. Cat: Thanks, glad they help. Stakes are like POV. Tough to get at first, but then something clicks and it all falls into place. You'll get there :)

    Natalie: Thanks so much!

    Nindogs: A large cast would certainly make it tougher, though that also gives you lots of conflicts to play off of.

    Chicory: Thanks for de-lurking! Always fun to get more folks chatting. A lot of times when I raise my stakes too fast, that's a red flag that I still need to work out some earlier steps of the plot and protag's goals. Might not be the same for you, but it's one thing to consider :)

    June: Most welcome. I love talking about and teaching writing. (and learning more myself)

    Shannon: Great, glad it hit you at the right time. Stakes definitely help weed out the "do I really need this?" scenes.

    Amy Jane: Ooo, that it tough. I've been there (the four years part) where you just don't know if it's the book or that you've seen it way too much. Taking time away from it does help some, since you can come back and read it with fresh eyes. Or a good crit partner who hasn't read it yet.

    Yay, another "mean writer." Us meanies gotta stick together, LOL.