Today, we welcome back author and blogger Janice Hardy, who explains why raising the stakes in your story ultimately rewards your reader.
Great to have you with us again, Janice!
Stakes are a critical part of any novel, because what’s at risk is often equal to how much a reader cares about the plot. Low stakes usually means a bored reader, no matter how much they might care about the characters. There’s nothing to keep them on the edge of their seats.
There are different levels of stakes, however, and what will grab readers and keep them on the edges of their seats isn’t always what we’d expect. The end of the world feels like the highest stake of all, but readers know the world isn’t really going to end, so it’s rarely a credible threat. Death of the protagonist is another seemingly high stake, but again, very few protagonists actually die.
Let’s take a look at the two areas where stakes will come from: Personal stakes and plot stakes.
Personal stakes are what the protagonist doesn’t want to have happen because it will hurt her personally. She’ll lose her job, the serial killer will murder her child, or the action will go against everything she believes in. They drive the story and make readers care about the outcome as much as the protagonist does. They’re consequences that can (and do) happen to make the protagonist’s life harder or her job tougher, and force her to sacrifice and make some difficult personal choices.
They’re also what keeps the protagonist from running away when it gets tough, and stops her from saying, “Yes, I don’t really want the evil sorcerer to take over and enslave the city, but if I take off right now, I can be far away when it happens and I won’t have to die or deal with this mess.” It’s better if she can’t run because a loved one is being held captive by that evil sorcerer and if she runs, that person dies.
Personal stakes are also things that can and likely will happen. Readers know the protagonist is most likely going to stop the serial killer in the end, though that killer might kill the protagonist’s wife or child before he’s caught. Victory will come at a price, and they’ll read on to see what that price might be.
Plot stakes are the consequences that matter to the world at large. The bigger, plot-driving consequences that will happen if the protagonist fails to do whatever the core conflict requires her to do. If the princess doesn’t stop the evil wizard, the land will be enslaved. Plot stakes are typically the bigger, more horrible outcomes, and while they’re something the protagonist is trying to stop, odds are it won’t actually come true.
Plot stakes are useful because they provide a larger scope in which to develop a novel. They can give those smaller, personal stakes greater meaning by showing how a protagonist’s sacrifice might benefit others. It allows characters to be noble (or selfish), rise above their personal struggles (or collapse under the weight), and become a force for good (or evil) in their society. Plot stakes often resonate with readers on multiple levels because they work with the big picture.
Making Stakes Work For Your Novel
If the stakes only work from a cold, flat, plot perspective, and even the writer doesn’t care if the problem is solved or not beyond an “ooooh that’s cool” interest, odds are the personal stakes are still missing. Without those, we risk ending up with a novel that’s all mechanics and no soul (and if you have a completed manuscript and readers just aren’t connecting to it, this could be why).
Don’t look at just the plot side of things when creating stakes. Think about how those stakes affect the protagonist personally. Do you care about this character and what happens to her, or are you just running her through a gauntlet of problems to illustrate a plot idea? If it doesn’t affect you to put her in danger and cause her trouble (either hurt you or make you giggle in glee), then why should readers feel any more emotion?
If the protagonist has nothing personal at risk, and can stop at any time with no personal repercussions, there’s a good chance the stakes are low, even if they’re high from a plot standpoint (such as high plot stakes but low personal stakes). “They could die” feels high, but if she walks away she’ll live. Problem solved. Sure, others might die, but do readers really care about a faceless mass of unnamed people? Nah.
Here are some questions you can ask to test your own stakes:
1. If the protagonist walked away, what would change?
2. If you put the second-most important character in the protagonist’s slot, what would change?
3. What does the protagonist lose if she walks away from this problem?
4. What sacrifice does the protagonist have to make for everything to turn out the way she wants?
If we feel it, then the characters will feel it. If the characters feel it, the readers will feel it. Once they care, they’ll read on, which is exactly what we want for our novels.
How high are the stakes in your novel? Do you have both personal and plot stakes?
Join us on Wednesday, April 16th, when Rie Warren presents: Burning up the Pages…and the Sheets
Looking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure takes you step-by-step through finding and developing ideas, brainstorming stories, and crafting a solid plan for your novel—including a one-sentence pitch, summary hook blurb, and working synopsis.
Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing.
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to planning your novel, as well as a handy tool for revising a first draft, or fixing a novel that isn’tquite working.
Bio: Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.
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