5.2.1 STAKES AND EMOTION
When we talk generally about the stakes of something, we’re talking about whether the potential losses or gains we might face are worth the risk of doing it.
Is it worth risking the great platonic relationship with your best friend to confess you’re hopelessly in love with them? Is it worth risking your last two pounds to buy a lottery ticket because you’re having a cosmically lucky day? Is it worth standing up to the school bully and putting yourself in the firing line to save someone else from being hurt?
Is it worth it?
Whether it’s worth it or not depends almost completely on what the person doing it stands to gain, or lose. A soulmate, a fortune, a chance to save someone from pain; all worthy goals, all things you might believe are worth taking a risk for. Assuming the odds are in your favour, of course. Otherwise, you’ve lost your best friend; squandered the last of your money; you’ve made a new, dangerous enemy.
The thing about stakes is that they are personal; what’s worth the risk to me might not be to you. Which makes the stakes in storytelling tricky, as the author is required to make the reader believe it’s worth it, regardless of whether they’d do the same.
So when we talk about the stakes of a story, what we’re really talking about is what is at stake for the characters – whether the potential gains are worth it – but also why reader should care about it. The most likeable characters, the most compelling plot hook, the most detailed and lush world-building is all worth nothing if you can’t hold your reader’s interest and make them desperate to know what happens next.
In the simplest terms, for the stakes to mean anything to your reader, they need to mean everything to your protagonist. And they have to keep escalating and escalating, until it’s down to the wire.
Establishing the main goal
The first stake you need to establish in your story is, of course, your protagonist’s main goal. The main goal should be the hook from which all of your scenes hang; every action your protagonist undertakes should be in an attempt to lead them one step closer to it, every obstacle they face should knock them (at least!) one step back.
From the beginning of your story we need to know exactly what it is the main character wants? What is the thing they want to say or do or achieve most of all, what is their focus? How do they plan to get the thing they want? This is important, as this is what gives the character agency and drives the plot forward and the character should always be driving the plot, not vice-versa. Your character needs to have some idea of what action they’re going to undertake to achieve their goal. They need a plan.
Then ask yourself what is their motivation for what they want? Why do they want it? What will getting it mean to them? What will not getting it mean?!
Of course, the idea of them not getting it should be unthinkable, it should be the very worst thing they can conceive of, because that and only that is enough to take them from their normal, safe world into the new and unpredictable world of the plot.
Internal and external obstacles
Finally, ask yourself what might stop them from getting it, and think here about both internal and external obstacles. Think about your protagonist’s fears, and use those to create obstacles. What are their flaws and how might they keep them from the goal? Do they have any secrets that might stick a spanner in the works? The shadow aspects of your main character should be as much an antagonist to them as the main antagonist – their own bad decisions, fears, flaws and secrets should be working against them too, because the mere idea that their own flaws, secrets or unresolved traumas might be the thing that undoes them instantly raises the stakes.
And then there are the external obstacles standing between a protagonist and their goal; namely, the plot and the agency of other characters!
Just before you can confess your love, your best friend tells you they’re moving to another country for work; you buy the winning lottery ticket only to leave it on the bus when you let a little old lady have your seat; you stand up to the bully and save the victim, only for them to make you their target instead.
Already from these examples you can see how the stakes – which were already relatively high – have been raised even higher by the introduction of further obstacles. Suddenly there are more risks and more dangers and the path to resolution isn’t as straightforward as it once might have been.
Aside from obstacles, what other ways we can increase the tension and raise the stakes?
The countdown has begun
One of the simplest ways is to give your protagonist a deadline. The countdown has begun and they only have a certain amount of time to reach their goal, or else they lose by default. A time limit does the double duty of giving your plot a natural end-point to aim for, and also puts your character under pressure to beat the clock; you automatically raise the stakes every time they come across another obstacle that keeps them from their goal because they don’t have time for it.
Actions have consequences
Make sure there are always consequences for your character’s actions and choices. Make sure you don’t throw anything away. If they’re rude to an old woman in act one because they’re in a hurry, make sure to bring her back in act two as a vital component of completing their task. Don’t let any opportunity to hold your character back escape you – every set-back raises the stakes as it becomes less and less likely they’ll succeed.
Increasing the stakes
Another way is to up the emotional, internal stakes. Put your characters in situations where they don’t have time to think, or explain or analyse before acting. Force them to do something, to make hasty decisions they might regret later as it turns out more obstacles have arisen from it. Have them to face their fears and flaws head on, with no time to hesitate. Ask what is one thing they won’t do to achieve it? Why is this their limit… And then ask yourself: would they break their own limit to achieve their goal… And what happens to them if they do? Who are they then?
When we raise the stakes of our characters journeys and decisions, we reveal new truths about them, and the lengths they’re willing to go to in order to achieve their goals. We explore their emotional arcs as they battle with their demons, we make every action and word significant and important. And when we do this, we develop their emotional journey and create characters that our readers will really root for.
Suggested writing task
Look at your story outline – identify the key decisions your character has to make – what are the consequences? What’s at stake if they choose one way or another? Make sure the choice isn’t easy by ensuring the stakes are high and there are consequences no matter what choice is made. Never make it easy for the character.
Melinda Salisbury is the bestselling author of YA fantasy The Sin Eater’s Daughter series, the political fantasy Sorrow duology, and most recently Scottish folk-horror, Hold Back The Tide. Her books have been licensed in fourteen countries to date, and she’s been nominated and shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Carnegie Medal twice, the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, and the Edgar Awards in the US. She is a fierce advocate for working-class writers.
Melinda is a Spark Mentor.