March 14, 2017

3 Steps to Raise Our Story’s Stakes

Apple on books with text: Deepen Your Craft with Resident Writing Coach Jami Gold (at Writers Helping Writers)

In my first post as a Resident Writing Coach over at Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s Writers Helping Writers site, I shared encouragement for approaching a big revision. Even when it seems like everything needs work, the elements of our stories—from goals and stakes to pacing and obstacles—all interconnect, so the fixes we make to one element are likely to improve the others as well.

Now that it’s my turn for another coaching article at WHW, I figured I’d dig deeper into one of those story elements and talk about how we can fix issues. This time around, we’re talking about stakes.

Stakes Help Readers Care

Last week, I mentioned that story structure has a reader purpose as well as a story purpose. Similarly, I’ve written about how stakes—the consequences for the characters if they fail to reach their goals—also have a reader purpose in addition to the story purpose:

“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.”

In 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 personal to the characters.

Stakes Need to Increase throughout a Story

If there aren’t any stakes, there’s no reason for characters to take risks, because one outcome will be just as good as another. No stakes means characters don’t have to make sacrifices. No stakes also means that readers have nothing to root for.

In other words, if there are no stakes, it’s a lot harder to have an engaging story. *smile*

But the stakes also need to change during a story. When stakes increase, the tension of a story increases as well. The pacing and narrative drive of a story are sustained. There’s a bigger sense of a story arc when the risks the character takes with each choice grow over time.

That’s where the typical advice comes in to “raise the stakes” over the course of a story. By raising the stakes, we’re forcing the characters to face bigger threats and obstacles, which then force them to make choices that bring them closer to the ultimate showdown with the main conflict.

But how exactly are we supposed to raise the stakes of our story?

  • Is it just about bigger consequences to our protagonist?
  • What if they’re worried more about others—does that not count?
  • How do we determine the consequences?
  • If a character’s goal is minor (such a wanting to pick up coffee on their way to work), are our consequences doomed to be inconsequential too?
  • What about subplots—do those need to have huge consequences too, so our stakes are always increasing?
  • Does every scene have to increase the stakes?

Come join me at WHW, and let’s take a look at three steps for making sure our story has strong stakes—and answer those questions… *smile*

Writers Helping Writers: Resident Writing Coach Program
What Does It Mean to “Raise the Stakes”?

Do you struggle with including stakes in your story? What about making sure they increase over the course of the story? How do you make sure you’re raising the stakes in your story? Do you think stakes that increase help drive the story’s narrative and strengthen the tension and pacing of the story? Do you have any questions about stakes?

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