Wednesday, January 06, 2021

5 Places in Your Novel That Probably Aren’t Terrible Enough

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

With so much at stake, the smart writer takes a closer look at their stakes before they send that manuscript out.

Just a quick heads up that I’m guest posting over at Writers in the Storm today, talking about a simple change you can make to improve your writing success this year. Pop on over and say hello. 

I know this is a touchy subject for some writers, but…I love revisions.

First drafts are also fun, but it isn’t until I’ve been through the story once that I see where I can dig in and make it worse.

Yep, you heard me. Worse.

As in, raise the stakes and be as evil to my characters as I can. Because high stakes and personal consequences keep tensions cranked up and the pace chugging along, and that keeps readers glued to the page. 

First drafts are all about getting the story down on paper, and we frequently don’t know everything about that story yet. For a rare few, one draft is all they need, but for most of us, several drafts (at least) are required to fully understand the full potential of the conflict. 

When you first write a draft, you might not worry too much about why your protagonist is doing what they’re doing. You have a story in your head and your plot is unfolding to that mental picture. 

But crafting a compelling novel is about more than just telling a story. It’s making a reader want to read that story. And "what's at stake" is a big part of that.

Many first drafts suffer from low to no stakes, because the focus in on telling the story and getting the vision in your head out and onto the page. You know what happens (or not if you’re a pantser), and the goal is to “get your protagonist from page one to the end.” Which is important, but it’s easy to forget that also means “make that journey super hard for them.” 

It’s also common to have one, giant, end-of-the-novel stake (such as death or something equally final) for the entire story. It appears in the opening chapter and never changes—so tensions never rise. It can’t get any worse, but in a bad way, because readers know it won’t happen. 

You don’t need to raise the stakes every chapter, but the stakes typically escalate during major plot turning points when the protagonist faces a decision that moves the plot and story arcs forward. 

Here are five key places to escalate your stakes:

1. The Inciting Event

This is likely the first time your stakes are introduced. Something happens to trigger the plot, and it matters enough to the protagonist to act on it. Not acting on it will result in a consequence they don’t want to face. It probably won’t be huge (though it can be), but it’ll be enough to get the protagonist’s attention.

Establishing the stakes are important at this plot point, because they force the protagonist to step onto that plot path and start the novel’s journey. Without something at risk, why act at all?

Protagonists aren’t dumb. None of them want to step onto that plot path. So make them.

(Here's more on Story Structure: The Inciting Event)

2. The End of the Beginning (Act One)

No matter what story structure you use, the beginning focuses on setting up the conflict—because stories are about resolving a conflict. At the end of the beginning, the protagonist has a problem to deal with and something at stake. Odds are, whatever they’ve done to fix it has made it worse and the problem is now bigger. Failing here will cost more.

Show readers what this cost is so they’ll worry. Worried readers and happy readers, really. Then raise the stakes once the protagonist thinks they know what the problem is and how to solve it. Odds are, they’re only seeing the tip of the problem and things will get much worse before they get better.

If they’re not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, are they really protagonists?

(Here's more on Story Structure: The Act One Problem)

3. The Middle and Midpoint Reversal

At around the 50% mark, the unexpected happens, and this is a critical spot to raise the stakes again to incorporate the new event or surprise. Everything the protagonist thought they knew might have changed, what they thought was important might be pointless, and their plans could go right out the window. 

It's a time of reevaluation and realizing how big the problem really is—and what the protagonist has to both gain and lose.

People lead busy lives, and middles are long. Break it up and shake it up to keep tensions (and reader interest) high.

(Here's more on Story Structure: The Midpoint Reversal)

4. The All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul Moments at the End of the Middle (Act Two)

These plot points occur about 75% of the way through the novel. The protagonist often faces their first major defeat and thinks it’s hopeless and they'll never win. They realize the full scope of the problem, just how bad it is, and what it means. The realization of what it will cost the protagonist is central to the dark moment—what the stakes are.

This realization causes the stakes to escalate again and often requires a sacrifice. The protagonist will see their role in the bigger picture, and that can either scare them to death or deepen their resolve (or both), which propels them into the final act and the build up to the climax.

Protagonists really should pay a price for all that soul searching.

(Here's more on Story Structure: The Act Two Disaster)

5. The Climax at the End (Act Three)

Right before the climax (sometimes even during), the stakes rise again, because this is the last chance to resolve the story’s problem, and it should matter the most. The risks here are the highest in the novel. It’s all or nothing, do or die. Failure is not an option.

Avoiding this consequence is likely the reason the novel exists, and it’s driving the entire plot. It might be saving the world, or finding love when you thought you'd be alone your whole life. The climax is where the protagonist faces that ultimate fear head on and conquers it (unless you're writing a story where the protagonist fails, of course).

You only get one last chance to ruin your protagonist’s life.

(Here’s more on Does Your Novel Just…Stop? What Makes a Good Ending)

Of course, these aren’t the only places to raise the stakes, but raising them at key points in the story is crucial to maintaining the pace and keeping the plot moving.

Other opportunities to raise the stakes include moments where:
  • Choices are made, and there are consequences to every option.
  • Beliefs are questioned, and the protagonist must act in a way that goes against those beliefs.
  • The internal conflict is at odds with the external goal. Success in one means failure in the other.
  • Choices or actions are questioned, and the protagonist second-guesses what they’ve done and what it means.
Things matter more when they matter, simple as that is. Keep an eye on what's at stake for your characters and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a story that grabs a hold of your reader and doesn’t let go.

If there’s nothing to lose, the victory isn’t nearly as sweet. 

This is why people tend to leave a sporting event when it’s a blowout, and one team is ahead by a crazy amount. The outcome is certain, there’s nothing to lose (or win if you’re the losing team), and it no longer matters. But no one leaves a sudden-death overtime game. When everything is on the line, you need to see how it turns out.

Dig your hooks into your reader and don’t let them go.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and check each of these turning points in your novel. Do the stakes escalate? Does the problem become more difficult or more personal? If not, brainstorm ways you can raise the stakes.

How often do your stakes escalate during your story?

*Originally published March 2011. Last updated December 2020.
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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. I like the way this is explained. Thank you for a great post. I will definitely refer to it during revisions.

  2. Janice, I don't how it's happening, but not only do I understand stakes so much more about raising the stake after reading this post today, and past archives this week, but I'm honestly starting to both get it, and believe I can do it.

    Maybe not the first few times, but sometime soon, and it feels invigorating, and empowering, without being overconfident. I know you've felt this before, and it feels joyous, doesn't it?

    Despite how grumpy I get sometimes, I really do like to work hard, so long as I know I'm improving, it only gets annoying when I know something needs fixing, but how to do it isn't clear.

    I'll update my blog later and hope to have post where I touch on raising stakes, I've got some tips I think will help those who might be where I was last year, and at the most they'll know it'll get better, even if it's not a quick study, and I'm definitely living proof of that.

    As are you, Janice, and I know many regulars here would agree with me.


  3. Wow this is pure gold.

    We've been told to raise the stakes from lots of different people, but it's always a little nebulous as to when that needs to happen. This little guide is the cat's pajamas because now we have a rough guideline for when to make things go boom!

    Thank you so much for this post. Janice, you are a godsend.

  4. This is another post I'm bookmarking. You're starting to take over my writing folder!

  5. Great suggestions on where to up the stakes. I love how you tied it into the 3 act structure. Thanks.

  6. I'm going to have to use this rough framework to take a CLOSE look at my last novel and make sure the stakes are going up. Sure, there is continuing conflict, but I need to double check the stakes issue. Thanks for the great post!

  7. Rebecca: Most welcome. Glad you found it helpful.

    Taurean: Oh good! It's not unusual for things to start falling into place and to "get" stuff that's eluded you. I'm so happy it's clicking for you.

    Elizabeth: Most welcome! That's what I love about the three act structure. It's open enough to let you do what you want, but it provides enough of a frame to guide you.

    Paul: First, the folders. Next, the world. Bwahaha.

    Natalie: The three act structure is such a useful story building tool.

    Carol: You're welcome! That escalation is key :)

  8. Great post Janice! Just what I needed.

  9. Very helpful post! Thanks :D Gonna add it to my "Me Likey" page I think :)

  10. JTWebster: Awesome!

    Trisha: Thanks!

  11. Well, Thanks for the advice and the briefing.

    I just need to re-look at my narration form this point of view. Thanks a lot.

    And by the way, everyone, I am organizing a flash fiction challenge on my blog. Please do participate in it

    with warm regards

  12. Add me to those who are bookmarking this one. :)

    Do you have a post specifically on the mid-point reversal, with examples from your work and others? That's one concept I've seen you mention before that I think I could get better than I do right now. :)

  13. AllMyPosts: Most welcome, and good luck with your contest! (might be over by now. I must have missed this comment, sorry!)

    Joe: Yes I do and here it is:

    I thought I'd linked it in the article but I guess I didn't. :)

  14. I always felt the beginning is the most important. I need to set the tone and the pace of the story to keep the reader interested. Not having an agent I also have to keep that in mind as well. I have to be at the top of my game in those ten pages and not five chapters in. I want to reader to have a clear understanding of what the story is about.

  15. I was reading multiple articles that connect to this one and I realized that I probably got the wrong protagonist. I think you just helped me figure out the issue of my story and how I could make it better. All these articles gave me a lot to think about. Thanks! :)

    1. Oh good! Glad to help. It always makes my day to hear a writer solved a problem by coming here :)

  16. My writer self and my reader self are at odds concerning this topic. As a writer I see a knife's edge over the tipping point of not enough or too much stake raising. As a reader I may be in the minority. When I run into a story where the stakes are raising to consistently simply to make it worse for the main character, that book gets put down.
    It is a plague in TV thrillers and many action movies. Plot, plot, plot all the stakes must fit in the plot. And they do not need to be life threatening. I long for the character who learns something new from the bump in the road, not death around every corner.

    1. I agree. I never said it had to be life threatening, and that's a common misconception with stakes. They just need to escalate.

      Death around every corner is indeed boring, since the stakes don't escalate in that type of story. There's no way for the stakes to escalate if death is at stake all the time.

      Bumps in the road that cause growth are moments of change, and it's by getting over those bumps that the character avoids whatever consequence not getting over them would cause. That's an escalation of stakes. The lessons grow more important, the risks from not learning them get more dire.

      "Dire" doesn't have to be death. It just has to be something the character doesn't want to have happen, and it has to be serious enough that the reader agrees enough to keep reader to see what happens.

      The problem with low stakes is that the reader doesn't care if the characters wins or not. Or they know the character won't fail so there's no worry and there's no tension.

      The stakes needs of a thriller are also totally different from the stakes needs of a comedy or a romance or a light-hearted drama.

      Escalation does not mean death. It just means a higher price for failing that results in renewed motivation for the character to succeed in the goal.

  17. A great post. Most useful as I'm currently revising my novel. Thanks.

    1. Thanks! Glad it found you when you needed it :)

  18. Great description and guidance!