Friday, March 6

Day Six: Clarify the Stakes and Consequences

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Six of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This first stage is all about getting the story and plot worked out, and identifying any holes or problems to guide us in our revisions and let us know where we need to focus our time. We’ll be analyzing plot and narrative structure, and making sure the novel is working as a whole.  

At this stage, we should have a plot that holds together well, with all the right pieces dragging readers from page one to the end. The goal now is to make sure readers care about all this work we’ve done.

Today, we’ll focus on fixing any low stakes so what our characters do actually matters to them (and to readers).

Pull out your scene analysis and look for any notes on low stakes or scenes where the protagonist’s actions didn’t affect anything, or didn’t feel important enough to make readers care about the outcome.

1. Add or Raise the Stakes

Low stakes is a common problem with scenes that are doing everything right, but still aren't quite working. A handy test for low stakes: If the protagonist can walk away from the problem and nothing in her life changes for the worse, then the stakes aren't high enough. Let’s start there, and work through some common reasons for missing or low stakes.

Will the protagonist's life change if she fails to achieve her goal? Even if the change is small, every scene should affect the protagonist in some way. If not, the scene can feel pointless and unnecessary to the novel as a whole. Consider:
  • What consequences can you add to this scene?
  • What existing consequence can be made more dire?
  • How might you make it impossible for the protagonist to walk away from this problem?
  • How might you make it more clear what the risk or consequence is?

Do the stakes affect the protagonist personally? Sometimes the stakes feel high (such as the lives of hundreds of people), but since they don’t affect the protagonist, readers don’t really care.
  • How might you make the stakes more personal for the protagonist?
  • How might you narrow the focus so it affects people close to the protagonist?
  • How might the stakes trigger a memory or personal issue the protagonist has that makes the goal harder?
  • How might the consequences of the action cause a personal problem?

Do the stakes escalate as the novel progresses? Tension (and reader interest) builds as the stakes get more and more dire. In essence, it’s the classic “how can you make things worse?” question. Your stakes analysis from Day One should show you if there are any problems here. If so:
  • Where can you escalate the stakes?
  • Where can things go wrong?
  • Are there any places where the protagonist wins that would be better if she lost instead?

Are the stakes clear from the beginning of the novel? This might seem simple, but inform readers what's at stake so they know. Sometimes it's not obvious, and the reasons behind a character's actions don't make sense. Look for places where your characters can discuss or consider the risks--even if you never plan to have them happen. It's the fear of what could happen that helps raise the stakes.

Are the stakes big enough to be worth the reader's time? Someone can write the best book ever on a man choosing which sushi restaurant to dine at for lunch, but unless readers care about the consequence of that choice, they won’t care about the character or the book. Just having stakes isn’t enough if the stakes are minor or inconsequential.
  • Do the stakes change the protagonist’s life in meaningful ways?
  • Is that change anything readers would care about or worry about (be honest)?

(Here are more articles on creating and raising the stakes)

Problems Found?

For scenes with low to missing stakes, you might:

Add a consequence: Give the characters rewards and punishments so what they do means more.

Have something go wrong: Look for places where mistakes can be made and things can fail.

Make it personal: Bad things happening to faceless people don't tug at the heartstrings the same way as something bad happening to someone we care about. Let bad things happen to the characters readers know.

Demand a sacrifice: Take away what matters most and force a character to go get it.

Make connections: Bad choices made early on can trigger catastrophic problems later in the story. Look for ways to connect the problems and events so when that disaster does happen, both the reader and the character knows it's due to a mistake made long before. Knowing events might have turned out differently makes every future action mean more, and makes readers worry about even the smallest actions or choices.

Start small, get bigger: If the protagonist's life is at stake on page one, there's no room to raise the stakes on page five, let alone the climax. Start off with smaller stakes that can escalate throughout the novel, so things are constantly getting worse. Even better, look for problems that will snowball, so the small stake in the opening scene eventually turns into the dire stake at the end of the book.

Things matter more when they matter, simple as that is. Keep an eye on what matters to your characters 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.

As we close in on the end of the first week, we should be feeling pretty good about how our novels are structured. We’ll do one last plot check tomorrow, and then give our characters a little attention.

Tomorrow: Focus the Narrative Drive

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.

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. This is such a great reminder, Janice. I've deleted entire scenes in my book because they added nothing to the story. The nice thing is, I didn't even feel sad about it.

    This workshop is awesome. Thanks!

    1. We can usually feel when it's right :)

  2. This has been marvelous. Day one was the most intensive and took many hours to complete, but doing that has made this next steps much easier. It's like add flesh to the bones now! Thanks.

    1. That was the point of doing it, so I'm pleased to see it's doing it's job. Sometimes a little more effort in one area makes the overall job easier to do

  3. Hi Janice. Thanks for another great post. I was just wondering if it is okay to have multiple goals / stakes in one scene or would it be better to reduce?

    Kind Regards

    1. You can have multiple goals, just be careful that they're not pulling the scene (and the protagonist) in too many directions at once. Conflicting goals is good, so many goals that the scene feels scattered and rambling is not so good.

    2. Thanks for reply Janice - very helpful.


  4. Hi, Janice: Just completed day one's task -- lots of work, but man was it ever worth it. I'll be panting along to keep up. Thank you!

    1. Yay, grats! Finding those plot points can be a challenge, but once you know your story's structure and turning points, the rest is so much easier.

  5. This is seriously one of the best workshops I've "attended" and an incredible resource for all writers. Thank you for your time and effort putting this together. For my part, I know it's a small way to say thanks but I am a frequent tweeter of all things Fiction University (especially this workshop). :)

    1. Aw, thanks so much! I appreciate those tweets, and it's not small at all :)

  6. Yikes, you have so much for us to think about. Brain bulge time!

    1. It is a lot, but it's easier to take it a step at a time :)