Tuesday, February 11, 2020

3 Rules to Raising Story Stakes

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Many novels fail because the protagonist doesn't have anything at stake. Laurence MacNaughton shares three rules to making sure your story has the necessary stakes to make readers care. 

I will never forget the time I watched an author face-plant the career opportunity of a lifetime without even knowing it.

This happened at a multi-author book event, with dozens of people attending. One particular author was reading the opening scene of her new book to a restless crowd. I sat in the very back, intently trying to listen, but I couldn't really get into the story. My mind kept wandering.

The person sitting next to me—a literary luminary who routinely negotiates million-dollar book deals—sighed with disappointment. “What’s at stake in this story? There's nothing at stake here.” And with that, they lost all interest in this author. Maybe forever.


So where did this author go wrong? Where did she lose the attention of the crowd, as well as the interest of the career-maker sitting next to me? More importantly, how can you avoid making the same mistake?

1. Make sure every character has something important at stake.

When I work with a writer to help fix their novel, one of the first questions I ask is: What’s at stake for your main character?

In other words, what does the character stand to gain or lose? What will be added to their life if they succeed? What will be taken away if they fail?

It better be something important.

Think of your story as a high-stakes poker game. In order to play, your character must bet something valuable. Maybe an enormous pile of cash. Maybe their family business. Maybe their soul.

Whatever it is, they need to win the poker game, or they will lose this important thing. That tells you what's at stake.

Sit down with your notebook and think of all the things this character could win if they achieve their goal, and all the things they could lose if they don't. It might be a long list.

But don't stop with your main character. Give everyone a stake in this story.

And I do mean everyone. They all need something at stake. The antagonist (or villain). The best friend. The love interest. The aging mentor. The surly waiter.

Okay, maybe not the waiter. But certainly all of your main characters, and pretty much every named character in your book. (Bonus points if you can think of a good way to put the waiter in meaningful conflict with your main character.) They need to have their own stake or else oppose the main character's stake.

Because here's the thing: If your main character has something at stake, and someone else wants it—or doesn't want the main character to get it—then you've instantly developed a source of real, meaningful conflict.

That's exactly what you need to keep the attention of any reader, literary agent, editor, or publisher. 

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

2. Start the stakes on page one.

Maybe the ill-fated author at that book event had put in some nail-biting stakes later on in her novel. Unfortunately, I'll never know, because I couldn't get past the first chapter. How do you avoid this problem?

Hit the ground running.

Don't start your story at a point of low tension. For God's sake, don't have the main character wake up in bed, thinking about the day ahead. (You would be amazed how many manuscripts are doomed to the slush pile this way.)

Instead, your main character needs to have something at stake from the very first page. Start the opening scene with the character already in trouble. Give her something that she desperately is trying to avoid, or desperately trying to attain. Immediately. On the first page.

Go back to the list of stakes that you brainstormed in your notebook. Think about which ones are most urgent or important. Work one of them into the opening scene of your story. 

(Here's more on Three Mistakes to Avoid When Creating Stakes in Your Story)

3. Keep raising the stakes.

So if you start your story at a point of high tension, where do you go next from there? Low tension?

No. You start with high tension and then—wait for it—you go even higher.

Probably higher than you had originally planned. Maybe even higher than you thought possible. You don't necessarily have to threaten your main character with doomsday. (Although, hey, it works for me.) But you do have to keep making the risks bigger and more threatening.

Keep cranking up the stakes. Make the risks greater. Make the problems more intense as you go through the story. Put your main character directly in harm's way. Make the reader worry.

Make things worse. And then? Even worse than that.

By the climax of your book, you need to get to the point where your character will either literally or figuratively die if they fail.

What does that mean, “figuratively” die? It means that who they are—their very identity as a human being—will be destroyed if they fail.

Is your main character a detective? Threaten to take away their badge. Accuse them of a crime they didn't commit. Threaten to send them to prison in place of the murderer, and lock them up with all the killers they already put behind bars.

Is your main character a gold medalist athlete? Threaten to strip them of their medal. Threaten them with a medical condition that could end their career. Embroil the character in a scandal that could disgrace them and get them barred for life.

Is your main character a sorceress trying to save the world? Put them at the epicenter of doomsday. Turn their allies against them. Take away their friends. Confront them with a supernatural force of apocalyptic proportions, and then threaten to take away their magic powers forever. 

If someone asks you, “What’s at stake for your main character?” you should to be able to answer: “Everything.” 

(Here's more on Raising the Stakes: Revising to Keep Readers Reading)

Stories are built on stakes.

If you make everyone in your book desperately want something, if you start with high stakes from the very first page of your book, and if you keep raising the stakes throughout the story, you won't go wrong. Do it right, and you will hold your readers spellbound. Along with anyone else who happens to be listening.

Do you have a question about the stakes in your story? Leave a comment below, or feel free to reach out to me on my author website at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

Have fun writing!

Laurence MacNaughton is the author of more than a dozen novels, novellas, and short stories. His work has been praised by Booklist, Publishers Weekly, RT Book Reviews, Library Journal, and Kirkus Reviews. He lives in Colorado with his wife and too many old cars. Try his stories for free at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About Forever and a Doomsday

Crystal shop owner and quick-witted sorceress Dru Jasper is the guardian of the apocalypse scroll, an ancient instrument of destruction held in check by seven bloodred seals. All but one have been broken.

Now, a chilling cohort of soul-devouring wraiths has risen from the netherworld to crack open the final seal. If Dru and her misfit friends can’t stop them, the world will come to a fiery end. No pressure or anything.

These freakishly evil spirits can kill with a mere touch, making them impossible to fight by mortal means. To keep the apocalypse scroll out of their clutches, Dru must solve a 2,000-year-old magical mystery, find a city lost in the netherworld, and unearth a crystal older than the Earth itself.

Can she elude the forces of darkness long enough to save her friends and safeguard the scroll forever—before the undead break the seventh seal and bring on doomsday?

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound Kobo


  1. Excellent advice. It really is all about that first page. Thank you.

    1. Thanks Stephen! Just remember: even if you've got a killer first page, you do have to keep building the stakes to raise the tension throughout your book. One of my favorite tricks is to work in a big "UH OH" at the end of every chapter. It keeps people turning the pages.

  2. Excellent advice, and so well written! Thanks, Laurence. I'll be sending several of my novelist clients to read this. I know these tips will improve their stories!

  3. Thanks for sharing Jodie! Lack of stakes is a story-killing problem, so hopefully this helps. : )