“Raise the stakes throughout your story.” Advice like this is often given as though we all know what the phrase means. And on some level, we do know what it means: make the situation “worse.”
But there are many ways to make a situation worse. As Serena Yung asked in a comment:
“Would you define a “stake” as “a threat to the main character’s life or well-being”? … Or would a stake be “an obstacle to an important goal” the main character has?”
Both threats and obstacles can make the situation worse, and while good and important methods for developing the plot and increasing the tension of our story, they’re not necessarily the same thing as stakes. So let’s talk more about what it means to amp up the stakes in our story.
What Does “Stakes” Mean?
Simply put, stakes are the consequences for failure. If our characters don’t reach their goal, what will happen?
Failure should result in negative consequences. Something bad should happen. If there are no consequences for failure, the reader has no reason to care about or root for a certain outcome.
But stakes usually don’t (and probably shouldn’t) start with the threat of death. After all, there’s a limit to how things can get worse from there. That’s why we need to think about how we’re going to raise the stakes during our story.
Example of Raising the Stakes: Veronica Mars
Most of you probably didn’t see the Veronica Mars movie back in February. That’s okay, you don’t need to have seen the movie to understand these examples (and I’ll keep this relatively spoiler-free). But the movie did a great job with raising the stakes, so we can use it to illustrate the how this works.
Remember that stakes are the consequences of failure to reach a goal, so I’m going to list the goal and stake (“failure would result in…”) at different points throughout the story. There were many instances of raising the stakes in this movie, and these will just be some of the highlights.
Act One: The Beginning of the Story
- Goal: Veronica wants a job she’s interviewing for.
Stake (“failure would result in…”): She doesn’t get the job.
This could be a big deal in a different story, so context is everything in stakes. However, in this case, she’s so competent in her interview that we know she’ll be hired somewhere. In other words, this is a “prestige” goal and not a must-get-job-to-afford-food goal.
- Goal: Veronica wants to help her ex-boyfriend find a legit lawyer.
Stake: Her ex-boyfriend has a more difficult time escaping conviction for a murder he didn’t commit.
Murder conviction sounds serious, right? But this stake doesn’t directly affect her. The serious consequences are only to her ex, and her stakes are relatively minor.
- Goal: Veronica wants to reassure her boyfriend that her sudden trip isn’t a bad sign for their relationship.
Stake: Her boyfriend would be hurt.
This stake hits closer to home. It’s not about her ex across the country but about her current relationship. And we all understand that if her boyfriend is hurt or distrustful, it will affect her.
- Goal: Veronica wants to solve the mystery of who really committed the murder.
Stake: Her ex-boyfriend/former-love-of-her-life will probably be up for the death penalty.
Here’s the End of the Beginning/First Plot Point. This is where she commits to the story goal. Even though it’s still about her ex, we’ve seen that their chemistry is alive and kicking. If he dies—or even just suffers—she’ll be devastated.
Act Two: The Middle of the Story
- Goal: Veronica wants to avoid criminal charges for “Breaking and Entering.”
Stake: A criminal record would affect her chances at any job.
As Veronica becomes more deeply involved in the investigation, her choices jeopardize her entire future.
- Goal: Veronica wants to solve the mystery by Monday so she can accept the job offer.
Stake: She could lose the prestige job she’s been awarded.
This stake is personal because the subtext is that she needs to choose which life she wants: dealing with society’s underbelly by solving mysteries in California (where her ex is), or dealing with corporate shenanigans at the prestige job in New York (where her boyfriend is).
Act Three: The End of the Story
- Goal: Veronica wants to play her hand and solve the case. (The Climax usually matches the story goal first revealed at the End of the Beginning.)
Stake: If she plays her hand wrong, the murderer will kill her too.
This stake is personal—and quite literally life or death. This is the culmination of what all of the other stakes led to, the results of her choices.
Why Do We Need to Raise the Stakes?
The stakes typically become more personal and more potentially devastating as the story goes on. Why is that?
Obviously, raising the stakes increases tension and the page-turning aspect of our story. But there’s another element to consider.
As those examples point out, an additional reason for raising the stakes is to force the characters to make riskier and riskier choices. In turn, those choices will take the characters closer to the ultimate showdown with the main conflict.
Stakes Force Risks and Sacrifices
In Veronica Mars, the choice to help her ex exposes her to the risk of caring about him again. The choice to solve the case forces her to take risks to track down evidence, which then leads to the Breaking and Entering charge. Now she’s in deeper, and the events that spin off that depth force her to risk her prestige job and entire New York life. And so on, until she’s risking her life.
Even if characters are eager for the story goal right away (as opposed to being a reluctant protagonist), they might not be as eager if they knew all the obstacles ahead of time. The stakes are a way to force characters not to give up or walk away in the face of those rising threats and obstacles.
While a character might start out as a distant participant, by the end, they’re in the thick of the battle, doing things they never would have imagined they’d do at the beginning of the story. The stakes are the cattle prods driving them toward the finish line. They can’t give up or walk away because that would equal failure and trigger those stakes.
What if Our Story Isn’t Life and Death? How Can We Raise the Stakes?
Life is full of consequences for failure. Think of our characters’ jobs, relationships, etc. Anything our characters might fail at—and suffer negative consequences for—is a stake. Blogger extraordinaire Janice Hardy has several good posts on raising stakes and revising to improve the stakes.
Also note that in Veronica Mars there were many scenes where the stake was the same as it had been previously. Some scenes reinforced a stake, such as a voice mail reminding us of the deadline for her to accept the prestige job. Other times the scene deepened the stake, such as Veronica becoming more personally involved in the investigation.
Stakes don’t need to increase every scene, or even every other scene. Stakes are just one of many elements possible in a fully developed scene.
Using Subplots to Add More Stakes
I also skipped over several subplots in Veronica Mars that fill in Act Two with “lesser” stakes. Those stakes have do with her relationship with her boyfriend, her relationship with her father, and surviving her 10-year high school reunion.
In other words, the Act Two stakes might not always escalate from one scene to the next, as the scenes addressing the subplots might have different consequences apart from the main story conflict. However, within each of those subplots, the stakes did increase.
That is, the stakes with her boyfriend kept getting bigger. Ditto for her father and the reunion. The consequences for failing to “handle” those situations (or handle them well) increased.
More importantly for maintaining the overall tension of the story, the additional juggling necessary for those issues increased the pressure in the main story too. Especially as subplots are often where we can let our characters fail completely with no opportunity to “fix” the situation. Dealing with the consequences of a subplot failure can keep up the story’s tension in the middle act, and the failure of our protagonist can make the other stakes look more like potential outcomes too.
Coming up with good stakes can definitely be a balancing act. We want the stakes big enough at the beginning to hook a reader and yet not so big that we don’t leave ourselves room to go even bigger. Hopefully understanding our options better will help us walk that line. *smile*
Do you struggle with understanding stakes or how to use them in your story? Does this give you a better idea of what “raise the stakes” means? Can you think of other stories that struck you for doing a good job with raising the stakes? Do you have other questions about stakes?