How to Raise the Stakes in Your Story
Stakes are the lifeblood of every story. If there’s nothing at stake for the characters, there’s nothing at stake for the readers. If there’s nothing at stake for the readers, there’s no reason for them to keep reading. We may think we would love to read a story full of rainbows and sunshine—a story where the characters experience no pain and finally get what they deserve. The problem is: we keep reading about our favorite characters because we admire their courage and perseverance and we expect them to be rewarded for it eventually. If the characters live in a world of pure satisfaction, readers don’t know they deserve it.
So, this week’s post is about raising the stakes for your characters.
What to Put at Stake
Money. Oh, what people are willing to do for money. Yes, your protagonist can be a greedy rich person ready to destroy businesses to grow their own. Or they can be a poor parent willing to rob to care for their family. Or they can be a teenager trying to get a job to pay for the college of their choice. Or a young adult looking for investors to start their own company. Everybody wants money, so it only makes sense if your character’s decisions are—to a certain extent—influenced by their wish for wealth. It’s up to you to decide how much power that money holds over them.
Possessions, especially ones with sentimental value (as opposed to solely monetary value). An old couple may be unwilling to move out of the home they have lived in for half a century. A child may be overly protective of their stuffed animal. Think about how your characters may protect their possessions and what situations may challenge them.
Career. Well, yes, a character might want to keep their job to keep their salary. But they might be a CEO who wants to keep running their empire (or small business) the way they always have. They might be a teacher who wants to make sure their students have the best education possible—even if they are dying of a chronic illness. Maybe someone wants to keep their job because of the workplace atmosphere, for the stepping stone this job will provide for their future ambitions, or just so they can spend more time with someone. Think about why someone’s career might be important to them.
Reputation. Mark Twain said, “Dance like nobody’s watching.” Well, unfortunately, we live in a world where someone is always watching. And your characters probably realize that. An assertive leader is going to avoid going back on their word, even if they realize they were wrong. A successful warrior may lie to convince others they completed their mission only to avoid admitting that they failed. Think about how strongly your character is affected by the opinions of those around them. Do they dress to impress everyone every day? Do they struggle with body image because of their peers or family members?
Mental & Physical Health. Building off that, social pressures can destroy your character’s mental health, which can have a direct effect on their physical health. Think about eating disorders, anxiety, etc. Something as simple as watching a horror movie or as extreme as a death could have an impact on your character’s mental health. Your character may have a physical disability that prevents them from doing something they love, such as playing a sport. Do they do it anyway? If so, how does that affect them?
Morals. Everyone has a moral code, even if it just says they’ll only kill people who annoy them and even if everyone seems to annoy them. Most people—even your antagonists—draw the line earlier. This may come from a religious upbringing, empathy developed from harsh experiences, a vow made to someone important, or anything else. But, what if this moral code is challenged? What if, in order to achieve their goal, the protagonist has to sacrifice their morals? This is a great way to explore
Relationships. A girl has to destroy something (or someone) on her way to achieve her goal, and that thing happens to be very valuable to her brother. Is she willing to sacrifice her relationship with her brother for this goal? Can she ever mend the relationship? Or someone wants to break up with their partner without destroying their friendship. This could be the premise for a very high-stakes conversation. Or the new kid at school wants to make friends, and has to think long and hard about the kind of first impression they want to make.
Loved ones. Let’s up the stakes. Instead of being worried about one’s relationship with another character, the character is worried about the happiness, health, or life of a character they care about. What a character is willing to risk for another character will reveal the true depths of their relationship. Is your character prepared to sacrifice their life for their loved ones?
One’s life. This is the classic—almost mandatory in many genres. A character must complete a dangerous mission that may result in their death. Or a character must complete a suicidal mission that will result in their death. Unless, of course, they can find a way to escape it. This doesn’t have to span the entire novel and can be seen in individual chapters through battle scenes, for example.
The world. Honestly, this one is unrealistic. A character is highly unlikely to care about the fate of the world and sacrifice their time, energy, and life for it unless their focus is on one of the other things I listed above. If the stakes are personal for the character, they are more likely to care. If the character cares more, the reader cares more.
Things to Consider
Deadlines. It could be as exact as defusing a timed bomb or as vague as racing an invisible stranger. A ticking clock keeps your characters and readers on their toes, ready and afraid for the minute hand to strike 12. On top of all the other stakes, there is the overhanging factor of time. If your characters don’t achieve their goal before the deadline, everything (or almost everything) that was initially at stake will be gone.
Conflicting stakes. A this or that situation, where neither is something a character is willing to accept. This is perfect for character development, as your character explores their two options in order to eventually prioritize between their two values. Or, maybe, you can show how cunning your character is as they figure out how to save both things at stake. Plot twist: in saving those two things, they end up destroying another.
Example: A mother has to choose between saving her two children. She ends up saving both, but is forced to kill someone in the process, thereby sacrificing her morals.
Genre. Fantasy, sci-fi, adventure/action, and horror stories tend to have the biggest stakes for their characters and their worlds. Mystery and thriller have slightly lower stakes. And romance and coming-of-age novels have much lower stakes. Your goal should not be to put the highest stakes possible on your characters. Instead, you should consider your genre and what readers of your genre want. Not everyone finds life-threatening situations interesting, and not everyone will be satisfied reading about a character who is trying to get the attention of their crush.
Levels of Stakes. Some things are at stake for the duration of the novel. In Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows, for instance, money and lives are at stake at all times. Relationships, too, take up a lot of the novel. However, smaller stakes, such as Nina’s mental health once she gets addicted to jurda, do not span the entire novel. Each chapter should have some sort of stake of its own in order to keep the story moving and the reader invested. Consider what is at stake in the short-term and long-term for your character.
Stakes make a story worth reading—although they do make readers and our characters annoyed at times. It’s important to think about what is at stake for your characters, what else could be at stake, and how your characters deal with these obstacles. After all, the storm before the rainbow makes the rainbow that much more beautiful.