Wednesday, March 9

Raising the Stakes: Revising to Keep Readers Reading

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
First drafts are all about getting the story down on paper. For a rare few, one draft is all they need, but for most of us, several drafts are required to put the sparkle on the story. With so much at stake, the smart writer takes a closer look at their stakes before they send that manuscript out.

It Really Matters

When you first write a draft you might not worry too much about why your protagonist is doing what she’s 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 about making a reader want to read that story.

Stakes are a great way to help accomplish this. Ask you revise your manuscript, check to see that your stakes are escalating and pulling the reader through the story.

When Do You Raise the Stakes? 

You don’t need to do it every chapter, but typically you’ll be upping the stakes during major plot turning points. The moments where your protagonist is faced with a decision that will send the story in a specific direction. Moments such as:

The Inciting Event 

The first time your stakes are likely introduced. Something goes wrong and it matters enough to the protagonist to fix it so the consequences don’t affect her.

End of Act One 

Roughly the first 25% of the story. This is the moment when your protagonist realizes the problem isn’t so little and her first attempt at fixing it has gone wrong. Trying to fix it has made it worse and the problem is now bigger. Failing here will cost her more.

Mid-Point Reversal 

At the 50% mark, the unexpected happens. This is the moment when things go sideways, problems get worse, and the stakes go up yet again. Often this is the first indication that the problem is more than just the protagonist, and glimpses of the bigger picture are seen. Or, if the stakes have always been big picture, then this starts to become personal for the protagonist.

End of Act Two 

About 75% of the way through the story. This is the dark moment, the realization that it’s all probably hopeless and the protagonist will never win. The full scope of the problem and just how bad it is and what it means. The stakes will escalate again and often require a sacrifice of some type. Frequently the protagonist will see her role in the bigger picture, and that can either scare her to death or deepen her resolve, which propels her into the final act and the build up to the climax.

End of Act Three 

This is the climax, and the stakes rise again. The risks here are the highest and most personal of the novel. It’s all or nothing, do or die. Failure is not an option here.

Of course, these aren’t the only places to up the stakes, but raising them at key points in the story is crucial to maintaining the pace and keep things moving. Any other time you can make things matter more will only help make the story more gripping.

Look for moments where:
  • Choices must be made, and there are consequences to each choice.
  • Beliefs must be 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 acts are questioned, where the protagonist is second-guessing what they’ve done and what that means.
Things matter more when the matter, simple as that is. Keep an eye on what matters and how you can deepen that, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a story that grabs a hold of your reader and doesn’t let go.

For more on stakes try:
Raising the stakes.
Upping the stakes.
Making readers care.

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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 Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  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. :)