I talked a few weeks ago about building tension (link here!), and one of the elements I mentioned was emotionally significant consequences. This element is also known as ‘stakes’.
So what are stakes? Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain, or what forces your character to do The Thing and to stick with it through to the end instead of doing anything else. Stakes are closely tied to goals and motivations, so it’s very important that your character has them and that the reader is able to understand them. Even when protagonists are technically criminals or some brand of ‘bad guys’ (like the cast of Firefly, who are smugglers, thieves, and murderers, but we love them anyway), having understandable motivations can go a long way in making the reader care about the consequences of the story, and the outcome of the story.
On the other hand, even the goodest of guys cannot force you to care about a thing that they don’t give a used fig for. If your character has nothing meaningful at stake in a story, then it doesn’t really matter what they do. Why bother to go save the world when eating pork rinds and watching the Super Bowl is so much easier?
So how can we, as the writers of these stories, raise the stakes? How can we make sure that the things at stake matter to the characters, and by extension to our readers? And how can we craft stakes that will carry tension- and a reader’s interest- throughout the entire story?
There are multiple ways to do it, and which one you use will vary from story to story, with some stories even needing more than one type of stake. (And I’m sure this little list isn’t exhaustive, so if you have any good ones I failed to think up, please give a shout out in the comments section!)
Increase the Stakes You know those superhero stories where, in the first movie or book or whatever, the hero just has to save his classmates at prom? And then by the second one, the whole city’s in peril? And then aliens show up and then the whole world needs saving? The stakes increase each time. And it doesn’t need to just happen throughout a series. This can also apply within a single story. Maybe at the start of the story, the hero is just worried that his protective mom’s going to find out and ground him forever. And then he’s worried that the villain will find out about his family and try to hurt them. It’s only by the very end, after juggling secrets and life and generally making a mess of both, that he has to save his whole school. Increasing the stakes- especially while dangling just a liiiiittle bit of peace and happiness in front of your main character before snatching it away- can keep tension high throughout a story.
Personalize the Stakes This one kind of takes the stakes in the opposite direction of the previous one. Instead of widening the stakes out bigger and bigger, try bringing them down into smaller, more personal pieces. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to go back in time to save the world from cyborgs, but it’s the only way to save that one friend that they lost along the way. Maybe your character doesn’t really want to save all of Chicago from the madman with a bomb; maybe they’re only in it because their daughter’s preschool is across the street from the detonation and that little girl means everything to them. Making stakes that a stranger doesn’t really care about that much, but that holds up the whole world for your character, can make for intense stakes.
Clash of the Stakes Most people have more than one motivator in life. Characters are the same. They’re not automatons programed to chase after one goal and not to care about anything else ever. So maybe your character devoutly adheres to a very strict religion, but gosh, they really want to watch a live event that happens right during church. What’s a body to do? Or maybe your character really wants to reconnect with his estranged father who deploys in two days, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his and his wife’s struggling business has arrived and must be acted upon immediately or it’s gone forever. What’s a body to do?? Make a character choose between love and honor, between loyalty and opportunity, between Goal A and Goal B, because, curse this awful universe, they just can’t have both.
A final thing to keep in mind while coming up with stakes for your character is the difference between selfish goals and selfless goals. If a character only has selfish goals, especially when those goals overshadow selfless goals, readers aren’t as likely to empathize with them, which means they won’t care as much about the events of the story. If a character has selfless goals they’re fighting for- something that’s important to a spouse, or trying to save a friend, or support a child, etc- that’s much more interesting, especially if it means having to sacrifice some of their own personal goals. (Side note: selfish goals aren’t always bad. Sometimes a character just wants to save their own marriage or prioritize their own happiness or something like that, and that’s okay. When I talk about selfish goals being hard to empathize with or disinteresting, I’m more talking about selfish goals that come at the detriment of someone else. Those are less fun to read in my opinion. I don’t really get revenge tales, y’know?)
How about you fine readers? Any other ideals for upping the stakes in a story? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!