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Monday, October 16

Day Sixteen: Idea to Novel Workshop: Finding Your Stakes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Sixteen of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. For the rest of the month, we’ll focus on plot and the major turning points of a novel.

Today, we’re looking at the reason our characters are going to all the trouble of solving the novel’s problem—the stakes.

Find Your Stakes


The stakes are the motivating factors for the protagonist’s goals, and why she has to overcome those conflicts right now as opposed to whenever she gets around to it. The stakes are what happens if she doesn’t succeed. Stakes are bad. Stakes are killer. The higher the stakes, the more tension is created and the more compelling the plot. They’re the “or else” in every threat.

There are different levels of stakes, however, and what will grab readers and keep them on the edges of their seats isn’t always what we’d expect. The end of the world feels like the highest stake of all, but readers know the world isn’t really going to end, so it’s not a credible threat. Death of the protagonist is another seemingly high stake, but again, very few protagonists actually die.

What Are Your Personal Stakes?


Personal stakes are what the protagonist doesn’t want to have happen because it will hurt her personally. She’ll lose her job, the serial killer will murder her child, or the action will go against everything she believes in. They drive the story and make readers care about the outcome as much as the protagonist does. They’re consequences that can (and do) happen to make the protagonist’s life harder or her job tougher, and force her to sacrifice and make some difficult personal choices.

They’re also what keeps the protagonist from running away when it gets tough. The consequence that stops her from saying, “Yes, I don’t really want the evil sorcerer to take over and enslave the city, but if I take off right now, I can be far away when it happens and I won’t have to die or deal with this mess.” It’s better if she can’t run because a loved one is being held captive by that evil sorcerer and if she runs, that person dies.

Personal risks are also things that can and likely will happen. They move the novel forward and are real consequences for readers to worry about. Readers know the protagonist is going to stop the serial killer in the end, though that killer might kill the protagonist’s wife or child before he’s caught.

Why personal stakes are important: Personal risk is much more compelling than faceless tragedy. That’s why one family dying in a car crash on Christmas Eve hits us harder than millions of people dying of a terrible disease every year. Find a solid answer to that all-important question: Why should the reader care about this person and this problem?

At some point in the novel (typically during the second half of the second act) the protagonist often has to sacrifice something to get what she wants. It’s not uncommon to see the personal stakes shift and become those larger “save the world” stakes because of this sacrifice (so you can have those big stakes and still have the personal ones). A personal sacrifice serves the greater good, and the greater good issue allows the protagonist to get something she values more than anything else.

What Are Your Plot Stakes?


Plot stakes are those consequences that matter to the world at large. The bigger, plot-driving consequences that will happen if the protagonist fails to do whatever the core conflict requires her to do. If the princess doesn’t stop the evil wizard, the land will be enslaved. Plot stakes are the bigger, more horrible outcomes, and while they’re something the protagonist is trying to stop, odds are it won’t actually come true.

Why plot stakes are important:
The plot stakes provide a larger scope in which to develop a novel. They can give those smaller, personal stakes greater meaning by showing how a protagonist’s sacrifice might benefit others. It allows characters to be noble (or selfish), rise above their personal struggles (or collapse under the weight), and become a force for good (or evil) in their society. Plot stakes often resonate with readers on multiple levels because they work with the big picture.

Explore possible stakes and determine if they’re high enough, or personal enough to your protagonist to carry a novel.

1. If the protagonist walked away, what would change?

2. If you put the second-most important character in the protagonist’s slot, what would change?

3. What does the protagonist lose if she walks away from this problem?

4. What sacrifice does the protagonist have to make for everything to turn out the way she wants?

EXERCISE: Describe your stakes.


What does the protagonist have to gain, what does she have to lose, and what are the consequences if she fails at her task?

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Five goes into more detail on creating strong stakes.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at capturing the essence of your story in a summary line.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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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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4 comments:

  1. Excellent analysis. But I have to disagree with one aspect of it:

    Loss vs gain.

    You describe stakes in terms of what can be *lost*, whether it's life or something else like career or relationships. That's certainly the most common way to build a story, and the easiest and most intense; we're all programmed to be most aware of threats.

    But that doesn't mean a story's core stake can't be trying to *gain* something: struggling to start a career, solve an old case for the sake of closure, or of course find romance. In most ways it would take the same path (but need some extra effort to get us invested), and make us feel that not winning that prize would be as awful as other stories where there's something actually lost. And of course during that push forward, the character probably puts what he started with at risk anyway.

    But the overall arc of the story could still be a struggle to *gain* that stake rather than hold onto it. Either way, what matters is how much we make the hero and the reader want the happy(er) ending.

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    1. The goal can be to gain something, but to me, a stake is what can be lost. Maybe that loss is a chance at happiness (which could be seen as a gain of a lover in the case of a romance), but it's a risk, not a reward.

      I think we feel the same way about it conceptually, just using different terminology :)

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  2. Interesting comment, Ken. But as always, Janice, great article.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! Ken always has good insights :)

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