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Monday, November 20

Raising the Stakes: Revising to Keep Readers Reading

raising the stakes, revising
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 (at least) 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.

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 making a reader want to read that story. And "what's at stakes" is a big part of that.

As you revise your manuscript, make sure your stakes are escalating and pulling the reader through the story.

When Do You Raise the Stakes? 

You don’t need to raise the stakes every chapter, but the stales typically escalate during major plot turning points. These are the meaningful moments where your protagonist is faced with a decision that will move the plot and story arcs forward. Moments such as:

The Inciting Event 

This is likely the first time your stakes are introduced. Something happens and it matters enough to the protagonist to do something about it. Not doing something with result in a consequence she doesn't want.

Stakes are important here because they force the protagonist to step onto that plot path and start the story journey. Without something at risk, why act at all?

(Here's more on the inciting event)

The End of the Beginning (Act One)

No matter what story structure you use, the beginning focuses on setting up the conflict. At the end of that, the protagonist has a problem to deal with and something at stake. Odds are whatever she's done to fix it has made it worse and the problem is now bigger. Failing here will cost her more.

Once the conflict of the story and all the various problems are established, it's good to remind readers why resolving these conflicts is important. Raise the stakes after the protagonist thinks she knows what the problem is and how to solve it. Odds are, she's only seeing the tip of the problem and things will get much worse before they get better.

(Here's more on the end of act one)

The Middle and Mid-Point Reversal 

At around the 50% mark, the unexpected happens, and this is a great spot to raise the stakes again to incorporate the new event. Everything the protagonist thought she know might have changed, what she thought was important might be pointless, and her 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.

(Here's more on the midpoint reversal)

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

These moments occur about 75% of the way through the story. The protagonist often faces her first major defeat and thinks it’s all probably hopeless and she'll never win. She realizes the full scope of the problem and 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 require a sacrifice of some type. 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.

(Here's more on the dark moment and the act two disaster)

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 this 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 book exists. It might be huge like saving the world, or small like finding love when you thought you'd be alone you're whole life. But 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).

(Here's more on writing strong endings)

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.

Good opportunities to raise the stakes include 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 she's done and what that means.
Things matter more when the 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.

How often do your stakes escalate during your story?

If you're looking for more tips on revising your novel, then 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.
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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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