Want to Write a Great Story? You Need to Raise the Stakes.

poker player raising the stakes

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Most authors understand that their protagonist needs a goal. But what’s at stake if they fail to achieve that goal is equally important to great storytelling.

In “How To Outline A Novel,” I introduced four questions you should ask yourself when beginning to write your story:

  • Who is your main character?
  • What are they trying to do?
  • What’s preventing them?
  • What will happen if they fail?

Today, I’d like to zoom in on that fourth question, which is another way of saying, “What’s at stake?”

Stakes are what keep your readers invested in your story. And when you raise the stakes, you ratchet up the tension, which will keep your readers turning pages long into the night.

Stakes make your story’s conflict feel important

It’s not enough for your character to have a goal in mind. Readers want to know what will happen if they fail. What’s more, if the stakes are high enough, even the silliest ideas can be compelling.

For example, let’s consider a story about a protagonist — let’s call her Jane — who really wants to win a regional pickleball tournament. Even though pickleball is a trendy sport, this doesn’t seem like a story with a ton of potential.

So let’s ask ourselves the question, “What happens if Jane fails?” If the answer is, “She’ll feel sad,” then we really do have a boring story that no one will care about.

But what if Jane needs the prize money to pay her rent? Suddenly this tournament is much more compelling. After all, if she fails, she may get evicted, which could ruin her life.

We just took a mediocre premise and made it more interesting, simply by adding stakes.

No backing out

The other thing that stakes do is force your protagonist to take action. Let’s say that, while training for the tournament, Jane sprains her ankle. If there’s nothing at stake, she could simply shrug her shoulders and enter the tournament next year. But now, with her rent on the line, she has no choice. She has to compete. What’s more, she has to win.

To write a great story and make it truly compelling, you need to force your character’s hand, and by adding high stakes, you can do just that.

Keep your stakes appropriate

When deciding what your stakes are, be sure to keep them in line with the kind of story you’re telling. For example, although pickleball is fun, it’s also inherently kind of funny. Although eviction isn’t a laughing matter, there are probably some other options Jane could turn to. Trying to win a pickleball tournament to pay for a loved one’s life-saving operation, for example, would be tonally dissonant.

Raising the stakes in your story

This is a phrase I’m sure you’ve heard before. It’s one thing to establish what the stakes are in the first act of your story, but if you really want to write a great story and keep your readers turning pages, you need to raise the stakes, usually around the midpoint of your story arc. In other words, if it was important for your main character to succeed in the first half of your story, you need to make their success absolutely vital in the second.

six months to publishingConsider the original Star Wars movie. At first, Luke’s goal is to deliver R2D2 to Alderaan because the droid contains “information vital to the survival of the rebellion.” So saving the rebellion is what’s a stake. This is a worthy, if somewhat abstract stake.

But when they arrive at where the planet Alderaan used to be, they suddenly realize the stakes are much greater: The Empire has a planet-killing weapon and R2D2 contains the information needed to destroy it. The very survival of the galaxy is in Luke’s hands.

In our pickleball story, what if, halfway through, the landlord raises Jane’s rent? Winning the prize money now won’t be enough, so she is forced to make a side bet. Now if she loses the tournament, not only will she be evicted, she’ll also be in debt to a bookie. It’s now truly imperative that she wins.

Emotional stakes

If you really want your story to resonate with readers, your protagonist will have two goals, an external goal and an internal goal, aka: what they want and what they need. And if they need to have two goals, they also need to have two stakes, an external stake and an internal, or emotional, stake.

Consider Back to the Future. The external stakes for Marty is that he needs to get his parents together before his very existence is erased. But there are emotional stakes as well. At the beginning of the movie, we learn his greatest fear is ending up like his loser father. Through Marty’s actions, he not only unites his parents, but gets his father to believe in himself, changing all their lives for the better.

Our pickleball player wanting to win prize money is her external goal, and eviction is her external stake. But what about her internal goal and stake? As it stands right now, she’s kind of faceless, which makes it hard for readers to care about her. So let’s make things more emotionally interesting.

Perhaps she’s entered a mixed-doubles tournament. This is good because now she will have to cooperate with someone else in order to win the tournament, which gives us fodder for interpersonal conflict, and that is key to any great story.

Keep turning the dial

Maybe Jane’s teammate is her boyfriend, who happens to be the regional pickleball champ. But their relationship is terrible. Jane has no self-confidence, and as such, she lets her boyfriend walk all over her. A week before the tournament, Jane catches her boyfriend cheating on her, and she breaks up with him. He’s out of the picture, and so is his share of the rent, which is why she needs the prize money.

Now, not only is she an emotional wreck, she’s also lost her best chance at winning the tournament (after all, he is the regional pickleball champ). Worse still, he is now playing on an opposing team and she will have to face him in the finals. Suddenly, this pickleball tournament not only has financial stakes for Jane but emotional ones as well.

Not bad for what seemed like a silly premise. We’re on our way to writing a great story, and all I did was ask, “What’s at stake?”

Your path to self-publishing

Related Posts
How To Outline A Novel
The Story Arc Makes Your Stories Powerful
How to Harness the Power of Foreshadowing
The Role Of The Unreliable Narrator
How To Write A Story Climax That Packs A Punch

2 COMMENTS

  1. The pickleball storyline made these ideas alive for me. Each step is very useful to my current work of updating some older stories. Now each rewrite is going to be a fun puzzle. Thanks for that.

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