All good stories need stakes. They’re some of the most important elements of storytelling. They’re what keeps everyone invested in fighting the central conflict – readers and characters alike.
What are Stakes and Why Do Stories Need Them?
Stakes are the consequences of a story’s central conflict.
More specifically, stakes are what the protagonist stands to lose or gain by overcoming the story’s central conflict. Why is the protagonist involved in this conflict? Why are they trying to overcome it?
This may sound like motivation, but it isn’t. Stakes are the things that the central conflict has put at risk; motivation is why these stakes matter to a character. Both are fundamental aspects of character development. But we’re here to talk about stakes.
Stakes are vital for a successful story. Without them, there’s no tension in the central conflict because the outcome doesn’t matter. Stories need stakes because the events need to matter to the characters if they’re going to be compelling for readers.
How Do You Develop Gripping Stakes?
Compelling stakes are personal.
If the central conflict puts a mass amount of people at risk, why is the protagonist at the centre of the story? Why are we reading about Larry during a global alien invasion rather than, say, his next door neighbour, Garry? The threat of death is universal; it’s the personal stakes that differentiate Larry’s story from Garry’s.
Lord Voldemort tried to kill Harry Potter as a baby. If he returns to strength, he might try to finish the job. This personal stake is why Harry Potter is the protagonist, not Hermione Granger.
Katniss Everdeen’s family relies on her for survival. If she dies during the Hunger Games, her family will starve. This personal stake is why Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist, not Peeta Mellark.
Tie Them to Character Arcs
Plot and character arcs are tightly linked, as the journey a character goes through to overcome the central conflict will put pressure on them to change, for better or for worse. Stakes are what tie these things together, as the story will reveal a person’s true character by demonstrating what they’re willing to do to achieve a certain outcome, and what they’re willing to sacrifice to change or remain unchanged.
When Harry Potter discovers that Voldemort is going to steal the Philosopher’s Stone to return to power, Harry sets out to stop him at all costs. He willingly puts himself in significant danger and sacrifices his personal stakes to stop Voldemort for the good of others.
When Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her sister’s life, she knows this means a fight to the death between her and 23 others. When it comes down to a choice between losing the Games, her life and her stakes, or winning the Games at the cost of her humanity, she chooses a third option to retain her humanity at the cost of her personal stakes.
In both of these examples, the weight of the climax hinges on the development of these characters up to this point, development that has been driven by their personal stakes.
Make Them Convincing
“Why didn’t X just do Y?”
If you’ve ever questioned a choice a character has made, this might be because their personal stakes were not convincing.
Why didn’t Barty Crouch Jr just turn Harry’s quill into a portkey? Because Voldemort wanted his resurgence to go unnoticed, and Harry’s disappearance would be very, very noticeable.
Why don’t the people of Panem fight back against the Capitol? Because they fear punishment and not everyone is willing to make sacrifices.
I’ve seen audiences question these numerous times. A story’s stakes need to be relatable and validated. They need to be convincing.
How Do You Know If the Stakes Are High Enough?
The Protagonist Can’t Walk Away
High stakes can’t be ignored.
While they may not necessarily begin this way, by the end of the second act, the stakes should be high enough that the protagonist can’t walk away from the conflict. Even if you decide to subvert the stakes in the end, the protagonist should get to a place where they can’t turn their back on the conflict because of what’s at stake.
The Protagonist is Willing to Make Sacrifices
The stakes should hit a point where the protagonist can sacrifice something significant for them to demonstrate how much they matter. Are they willing to take a risk? To break the rules? To do something morally questionable? If you’ve set up your protagonist as someone who normally wouldn’t do these things, when they go ahead and do them, we know the stakes are high.
How Do You Raise the Stakes?
The simplest way to raise the stakes is to give the protagonist a taste of them. If they want something, show another character getting it and living their best life. If they want to avoid something, show it happening to another character and them living their worst life. Scare your protagonist by forcing them to have a little taste of the consequences. Reinforce them. Convince the protagonist and the reader that they’re something to heed.
Introduce New Stakes That Contradict Existing Ones
Internal conflict can heighten the tension in a story as readers watch a character they care about strive to get something they desperately want at the cost of something else they desperately want.
In the Hunger Games, Katniss has a brief but meaningful history with Peeta, and hopes that one of the other tributes kills him so she doesn’t have to. Throughout the games, she forms a closer relationship with him, and also wants to avoid returning home as the Champion who killed someone from her own District. When the opportunity to get the best of both worlds is ripped away and she and Peeta are the last two standing, her personal stakes – her survival and her humanity – must battle each other.
Heighten the Protagonist’s Motivation
Motivation is the reason the stakes matter. If the protagonist’s motivation increases, the stakes become that much more important.
After seeing his parents for the first time in his life in the Mirror of Erised, their existence and the pain of what he’s lost becomes much more tangible to Harry. This heightens his feelings of loss, pain and revenge, which are primary drivers in his fight against Voldemort.
Add a Ticking Clock
Another of the most well-known methods of raising the stakes is to add a ticking clock. The countdown on a bomb … the plane about to take off … Dumbledore leaving the castle, meaning Voldemort will try to steal the Stone tonight and it’s now or never. This can be a great way to kick off a high-tension climax.
What does your story put at stake?
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