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September 27, 2016

Strengthening Stakes: It’s Not about Going Big

High tension electrical wire with large spark: Are Bigger Stakes Better?

There are many reasons why readers obsessively turn a book’s pages. They might love the plot, voice, characters, etc. But the basic reason at the root of most “page turners” is the reader’s desire to learn what happens next.

Do the characters succeed with their plan? How do they stop the bad guys? What happens when X learns about Y‘s secret?

One story element that keeps readers interested in what happens next is the story’s stakes. Remember that stakes aren’t just pointless obstacles that the characters have to overcome. Stakes are the negative consequences for failure.

The more readers care about seeing whether our characters succeed or witnessing our characters’ reactions to those consequences, the more likely readers will continue to turn pages.

That connection between stakes and reader involvement can make authors think that bigger stakes are better. We can probably think of countless examples of huge stakes: deadly laser beams aimed at the protagonist, giant meteors headed toward Earth, aliens obliterating humanity, etc.

However, not every story lends themselves to those types of stakes. Are “quieter” stories doomed to fail the “page-turner” test?

Not at all. Let’s take a closer look at the different kinds of stakes and learn what makes stakes work for readers…

Why Are Stakes Important?

Our characters face difficult obstacles during their story, but something makes them persevere through all of the conflicts and setbacks. I don’t know about others, but I’d be pretty tempted to give up if I faced the threats of many stories.

That something that keeps our characters going is stakes, and they’re essential for explaining why our characters do what they do.

Stakes—the consequences of failure or giving up—create a sense of risk. There’s a chance things might not go well, and our characters want to avoid those consequences.

This hints at two different reasons that stakes are important:

  • From a Story Perspective:

Stakes create a stronger sense of a story. If the situation might turn out differently, there’s a bigger sense of change, a journey.

Stakes also provide a sense of forward momentum. Characters are working toward their goals to avoid the negative consequences, which prevents a too-passive protagonist and increases a story’s pace.

  • From a Reader Perspective:

The risk that plans might fail creates tension that gives readers a reason to turn pages beyond just curiosity. Without that risk, readers might be curious about how a plan succeeds, but there’s no dread or anticipation accompanying that curiosity.

From dreading the consequences to rooting for characters to succeed, readers experience more—and stronger—emotions when stakes are involved.

Many articles about stakes talk about “increasing the stakes” from a story perspective, but let’s talk more about stakes from that reader perspective too.

Is It Still a Stake if No One Cares?

I have an odd fondness for disaster movies (sometimes the cheesier the better *hello Sharknado*), and if you’ve watched many disaster movies, you might have noticed one thing many have in common. They’ll often cut from a wide-angle shot of crumbling buildings to a close-up of characters known to the audience, as they experience the disaster in their corner of the world.

The reason for this is that big stakes—even “blow up the Earth” big—are meaningless to viewers unless they’re given a reason to care. The Earth isn’t really about to be hit by a giant meteor of death (despite what current U.S. election politics might have us wishing for), so the fact that it’s happening fictionally doesn’t affect us.

We could watch the entire Milky Way galaxy succumb to a black hole in a movie and not feel a thing. In other words, stakes aren’t about the size or the destruction or the explosive sounds.

As I mentioned at the outset, stakes require that readers care:

The more readers care

…the more they’ll want to root for the character’s success,
…the more they’ll want to find out what happens in the plot and to the character,
…the more they’ll want to witness the character’s reactions to those events,
…the more they’ll want to see how the character overcomes the consequences of their failures, and…

…the more they’ll turn the pages.

What Makes Readers Care about Stakes?

Even more than reading about world-ending catastrophes, readers care when:

  1. they feel a connection to the character, and
  2. the stakes are personal to the characters.

That makes psychological sense. We care about something bad happening to a friend far more than something bad happening to a stranger. That’s just human nature, and so the same goes for readers.

We also care more when that bad thing happening to our friend is going to affect them personally, rather than just creating a bad situation around them. For example, if the company they work for is laying off a lot of people, that’s a bad situation for them, but it becomes personal if they’re one of the ones being laid off.

What Creates a Connection to Characters?

There are many posts about this topic already, as there are many types of connections we want readers to form with our story and characters. However, Kristen Lamb wrote an interesting post about the difference between outer problems and inner problems that applies to the issue of stakes:

“Humans feel far more comfortable with outer problems (initially) and it is what draws us in. …think of it this way.

If we notice someone crying? We might (big on the might) get involved, but we wouldn’t feel very comfortable. If, however, a person is carrying a briefcase and the latches give way spilling out the contents? Most of us wouldn’t think twice about helping the person gather her papers.

We also would feel far less weird if after we helped gather the papers, we “found out” the person was discombobulated because she was upset over a personal problem (was just fired). We might even want to know more because we’ve established enough report to activate empathy.”

So if we’re not sure if readers are prepared to care about our character and the consequences they’re facing yet, we can try to draw readers in with a related external problem. We might even be able to use that problem to set up some of the stakes, all before focusing on the goal the character cares about (and that they don’t want to fail at).

For example, a character’s goal of needing a raise won’t mean anything to readers until we know their rent is going up and they’re supporting their younger sibling. Knowing that external problem sets up external stakes (eviction, not enough money for food, etc.), as well as internal stakes (would feel like a failure, worry for the sibling, etc.)

If we started off by just having the character brooding on those internal stakes, the story would probably feel melodramatic. And more importantly, readers probably wouldn’t care.

What Makes Stakes Personal?

In order for stakes to be personal, the risks to our characters have to be personal. They need to have something they can lose, even if they’re a loner type.

Obviously, they can lose their life, but let’s talk about non-life-or-death options. They could also lose their…:

  • job/success,
  • family/friends,
  • home/security,
  • dreams/hope for the future,
  • faith in God/humanity,
  • sanity/sense of self, etc.

And by lose, we don’t necessarily mean that they completely lose a friendship or whatever. (Again, we’re talking about the potential for “quieter” stakes here too.) Lose could refer to losing the situation as it is now.

A friendship might be damaged. Family could turn distrustful. Pessimism could take root. Etc., etc. The point is that whatever threatens the character will feel personal to them because they care.

How to Strengthen Our Story’s Stakes

A common problem I see as an editor is when the characters don’t seem to care enough about the possible consequences. And if the character isn’t worried, the reader won’t be either. A character has to want to succeed—and be willing to fight for it—before the reader will root for them.

In other words, even if the stakes aren’t life-and-death big, it’s our job to make the threat of those consequences for failure really bad for the characters—if only because they think the consequences are to be avoided at all costs.

So to strengthen our story’s stakes without going “bigger,” we can check:

  • Do consequences of failure exist for each of our characters’ goals?
  • Does the character(s) have something to lose to create a risk?
  • Are the negative consequences expressed on the page (do readers fully know how they’d affect the story)?
  • Are they personal to the character(s) (or do they become personal as we raise the stakes throughout the story)?
  • Do the stakes force characters to make sacrifices or difficult decisions that reveal their depths to readers?
  • Is the character(s) shown as caring about those consequences?
  • Have we set up readers to care about the characters?

“Worrying about a friend discovering their lie” isn’t a life-and-death stake, but it can be extremely meaningful to the character—which means it can be meaningful to the reader. And if a character cares about a stake, and readers care about the character, we don’t need any explosions to make a stake strong enough to pull readers through our pages. *smile*

Do you struggle with making stakes strong enough? Do you think it’s a problem of size or one of the other problems here? Have you encountered stakes that didn’t feel strong enough because it wasn’t personal to the characters, the characters didn’t seem to care, or a connection didn’t exist between readers and characters? Did this give you any ideas for how to strengthen stakes? Can you think of any other tips for strengthening our stakes?

 

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11 Comments on "Strengthening Stakes: It’s Not about Going Big"

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Jennifer Rose

Great post!

I think it might be because I’m a writer, but I’m pretty desensitized to BIG stakes (like the world’s in danger=big whoop).

So in my own stories, I have those BIG stakes, as part of the External story, and my fantasy genre, but I like to focus more on the internal stakes for the character- and have meaningful personal problem for them to overcome, that just happens to correspond with stopping something big, saving the world, etc.

Christina Hawthorne

I couldn’t agree more, Jennifer. Big whoop, indeed. If that meant so much we’d all be reading science journals and hanging on the latest about a blackhole swallowing a star. Instead, we take pictures and note how pretty it is.

Christina Hawthorne

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve never shed a tear over a story where the only stakes were epic disasters. Not once. Ever. Big has always felt like telling. The human element, on the other hand, has always felt like showing and has greater potential for touching my heart. A tear. A gasp. Even an uttered, “Oh no.” If I know someone in the story, if I’ve held their hand and listened to their pain, then I’m invested.

Ashley
Ashley

Excellent post! I think this might be one of your best ones – and that’s a pretty high bar. 🙂

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Wow, thanks for the tips! I especially love the points on how they should be personal stakes and that the character has to care strongly about them! A character’s anxiety often provokes my own anxiety (on their behalf), after all.

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great post.
I feel it may be worth adding that our characters should not obsessively follow their stakes-led quest along a line of cardboard figures – other people in the story have personal stakes too which may be related or completely unrelated. Just a hint can be enough to make these people flesh and blood.
When writing about a cold case, which I’ve done a couple of times, pointing up stakes can be tougher. There is no immediate connection or risk to the (amateur) detective. So what I have done is to visit the family of a missing or dead person, and show how they are in a horrible position of not knowing where /how/ who/ why. I have to make the reader care about the outcome on their behalf, even if they are not major actors in the rest of the story.

Kristen Lamb
Kristen Lamb

AMEN! Sorry it took so long to comment. Actually reread a couple times and YES. I see this all the time with new writing. Adding in a rape or a robbery or a car chase just gets tedious. Too many writers think they need to get BIGGER when actually SMALLER has far more impact.

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[…] K.M. Weiland answers 7 questions writers have about scenes vs. chapters, and Jami Gold discusses how strengthening stakes does not always mean going big. […]

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[…] Strengthening Stakes: It’s Not about Going Big […]

Anne
Anne

Jami,

Another excellent post. I just recently wrote the Black Moment / Lull for my current work…and I am not so sure any longer (despite me planning this one very carefully) that my Black Moment actually ties all the way back to the beginning and her stakes and everything.

Can you recommend a good checklist or resource for this kind of delayed doubts? Have you had any similar problems when you get down to the actual writing of the Black Moment?

Thanks again for another great post!

Anne.

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[…] that earlier post, I explored how we can make readers care about stakes, even if they’re not life-and-death. The key is creating a connection between readers and the character and making the stakes feel […]

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