Wednesday, April 03, 2024

3 Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story

stakes, make readers care, conflict, tension
By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stakes are critical to any story, because without stakes, why should readers care about what's going on?

Storytelling problems often appear in one of three areas—lack of goals, conflicts, or stakes. There’s a reason these three things make up the holy trinity of good storytelling. They work best when balanced, holding up the story like a three-legged stool. Weaken any one leg, and the stool (and story) collapses.

Goals drive the plot, conflicts create the suspense, but the stakes make readers emotionally invest in the story. Stakes make them care about the characters and their dreams, and makes them worry they won’t overcome their problems and succeed. 

It doesn’t matter if what’s at stake is one small grade on a test or the fate of the world, the risks and consequences of the characters’ actions affect how much readers care.

But sometimes we get so wrapped up on the what and the how, we forget about the why. 

Here are three common problems writers have with stakes.

1. The Stakes Start Too High

stakes, make readers care, conflict, tension
Don't start too high
Opening a novel with really high stakes seems like a good idea, right? It starts with action and characters in peril and says, "Look how important this is!" 

But when you start too high, there's nowhere for the stakes to go. You can't raise the tension or make readers fear for the characters more because they're already as worried as they can be. 

If Bob’s life is in danger from page one, it doesn’t really matter if he dies by falling off a cliff or is eaten by zombies. 

The results of his actions are all the same, and there's nothing more for him to lose.

I ran into this problem on the first draft of my second novel, Blue Fire. The worst thing that could happen was a possibility right from page one, so even though the story had a lot of action in it, it felt like you were just waiting for the bad thing promised on page one to occur. My protagonist's situation was bad, but it never got worse. That killed a lot of my narrative drive and made the story feel static.

So I took a step back and instead of opening the book with certain things already in place, I let them become obstacles Nya had to work around. She encountered them early on, and they provided problems that kept getting worse and moved her slowly toward the big bad I had waiting for her.

(Here’s more with What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes)

2. The Stakes Never Escalate

stakes, make readers care, conflict, tension
Build the tension to the climax
The root problem of starting with too-high stakes is that they can’t escalate, and escalating the stakes is what helps create tension and builds the story to the climax. 

Things need to keep getting worse, the problem must get bigger or more personal, and there should always be more to lose.

You’ll typically find “fake stake” moments at the end of chapters. You know you need to end a chapter with a hook, and putting the protagonist in dire straits is usually a good idea. But if the level of what’s at stake is the same every chapter, it flattens the story. Sure, things go wrong, but it never gets worse.

Look at how your chapters end. "She won't be able to get to the exit" and "She gets trapped in the room" are the same problem and could indicate your stakes aren't escalating, even if things are still going wrong.

(Here’s more with 5 Places in Your Novel That Probably Aren’t Terrible Enough)

3. The Stakes Are So High Readers Don’t Actually Care

stakes, make readers care, conflict, tension
Hard to care when stakes are too high
Crazy as it sounds, you can actually set your stakes too high. The fate of billions is hard for readers to wrap their heads around, so it doesn't feel personal enough to really worry about. Do you really care about the fate of Middle Earth, or are you more worried about those two little hobbits?

If the stakes are too large, find a way to bring them down to a personal level for your protagonist. 

There's a great scene in the movie, The Core, where the pilot (Hilary Swank) is commenting on how hard a time she's having, because how could she possibly deal with trying to save the entire world. One of the scientists (Tcheky Karyo) says he's not trying to save the whole world. That's just too big. He pulls out a picture of his family and says, "I'm just trying to save three of them."


Suddenly the stakes become something we can all relate to and understand. Risking your life to save the people you love. Your family. Your wife and daughters. You care more about that character after that, because he has such a personal stake in this situation. 

The brilliant thing about this, is that you still don't care much about saving the world, because you know they're going to do that. Stories usually have a happy ending, especially movies like The Core, but now you feel connected to that scientist, and you know there's a chance he might not survive to go home to his family. A smaller focus makes the stakes higher.

(Here’s more with What's at Stake? How to Make Readers Care About Your Story)

In the vast majority of stories, the ending is not a surprise. 

The killer will be caught, the girl will be rescued, the world will be saved. Stakes that only focus on the win or lose aspect are weak, because no one truly thinks the protagonist will lose. But they will believe the protagonist will have to pay a high price for winning. That keeps readers reading, because you can keep making that price higher and higher, and the consequences of paying it worse and worse. The more they care, the more they’ll worry.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Examine your stakes, especially at the major turning points of the plot. Are you making any of these mistakes? If so, how might you fix them?

How much do you consider what’s at stake in your story?

*Originally published January 2019. Last updated April 2024.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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