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.
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.
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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