One of the first things I was taught in one of my writing classes was to “play for high stakes”, which means that there should be a lot on the line for the characters in the story.
What does this accomplish? A few things. The characters have a lot to lose should they fail, the heart pounding tension of an action movie can be achieved, and because of the high stakes, the characters are forced to play and therefore drive the action.
So let’s talk stakes. As always, remember the first rule of writing is that there are no rules, so take what you like and what is useful to you. If nothing, then so be it.
Forgive a Tired Metaphor: The Plot is a Game, Your Characters are the Players
I was a chess champion when I was younger (on a very small level), so the chess metaphor, although overused, works for me.
Chess is so simple, yet so specific. You have your pieces that all move in a specific way. The stakes are high because both players have one goal: to check mate the other’s king. There are almost infinite ways to do this (the number is so high we’ll say “infinite” for our purposes), and it’s all about the strategy of the players. Absolutely nothing is up to chance. It doesn’t always work for storytelling for a lot of reasons, but hopefully my point is clear: in chess the stakes are high. The game usually gets more intense as pieces fall, sacrifices need to be made, and the options become less. The game ends either in a stale (no one wins) or a king must fall.
Even if you’re not writing war, thinking about it in terms of games and stuff may be helpful. It helps to simplify the problem. Chess is a complex game with a simple premise and goal. Think of the plot of the story as the game, and your characters are the pieces on the board or the players themselves.
Stakes are Deep
I know, I just defined stakes as “what does the character have to lose should they fail?”, but it often (and probably should) run deeper than that. It’s personal, by entering in the game whether by choice or not, they are risking something huge.
The stake is the risk. By entering a chess game, you risk defeat. By entering a poker tournament, you risk money. And so on.
We see the story through the characters, so if you can make the stakes high for the characters by evaluating their own personal risk in the great game that is the plot.
Don’t Make Them too High
I debated whether or not to put this here or at the end, but I decided to put it here because I’ve seen stakes be too intense at the wrong time, or too high, which leads to things that don’t make narrative sense.
The key is to make the stakes fit into what you’re trying to accomplish in your writing. If you’re writing a children’s book, the protagonist probably doesn’t have to worry about their family’s house burning down and everyone dying. It’s probably more along the lines of “I disobeyed my mom and accidentally broke her favorite lamp. Now I have to cover it up so I don’t get grounded.”
So although life and limb isn’t on the line, the stakes are still high: they don’t want to get in trouble. But the stake is relevant to the character and the tone of the book. As should the stakes be in any work.
So you need to consider what is the biggest thing to put on the line for the characters and how that fits into your narrative. If you’re writing a scholar who needs to write the best thesis ever to ensure their future, then raining hell on them by way of death, fire, horrible plagues that kill everyone, and so on, that might not fit in well with the narrative.
The stakes should fit the scope of your story. Toe the line, but don’t push so far beyond it that you lost the reader.
Make it Personal
The end of the world and death are pretty common things that are at risk if they fail. Those are solid, but at the same time, they’re fairly universal. No one wants to die, no one wants the world to end (except maybe the big bad). This is why the stakes should be more personal to the characters than that.
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo saw the future of his home and loved ones should he fail. That was something deeply personal that he didn’t share with the non-Hobbits of the Fellowship.
In Hamlet, the future of Denmark was at risk. His own fate and his goal of exposing his uncle to be a usurper/assassin was at risk should he fail.
Don’t make it all just death and destruction. Give your characters other things to lose which force them to tread carefully. Something they care about and something they value. Will they lose their fortune? A loved one (not just by death either)? The future (in some way that isn’t dying)?
Figure out what your characters are risking on a deeply personal level BEFORE figuring out how to up the stakes.
Make Them Differ
Obviously the stakes are are going to be in opposition for the antagonist and protagonist. But if your protagonist has companions, what’s at stake for them should differ.
In Lord of the Rings, the goal was pretty similar for the Fellowship and the “good” characters: Destroy the Ring.
But what was each character risking as a result? Frodo risked being tempted by the Ring, Boromir was also trying to save Gondor and that caused his downfall, Aragorn had a lady love back home, the country of Rohan was in bad shape so those characters got involved, Gandalf had beef with Saruman, the Ents had their home at risk should they not be involved, and so on.
If your protagonist’s goal is to save the day, make the risks their companions make different from theirs. One is risking their career, another their loved ones, another risks their fortune by investing in the journey, another risks their prized honor by betraying their faction to join the protagonist, and so on.
Make them specific and an accurate reflection of the characters’ goals and backgrounds.
Don’t Lie to the Reader
Don’t fake out the stakes. Don’t pretend the stakes are higher than they actually are.
Example: A diplomat from ForeignLand comes to HomeLand to forge relations and learn about each other. They don’t know much about each other and this is the first contact, so to speak. The Ambassador from HomeLand is charged with making befriending Diplomat. They become friends, but Ambassador figures out that by revealing so much about HomeLand, he/she may giving Diplomat too much information. Diplomat can take all the knowledge back to ForeignLand and wage devastating war on HomeLand. Ambassador becomes wary and suspicious, but cannot make Diplomat think he/she is suspicious of them.
The problem comes in when the Diplomat is completely friendly and devoted to a peaceful cause. Diplomat never does anything to make the reader or the Ambassador think they might betray the friendship, so Ambassador is just worrying about nothing.
The stronger choice is to drop hints or have Ambassador discover that ForeignLand’s intentions aren’t as innocent as they seem. Now, Ambassador has to try and work around Diplomat whether by forging a tight friendship, or being underhanded and sneaky.
If your character thinks something is at risk, make it a real risk. In the example the fate of HomeLand was at risk. Don’t make your character just think something is at risk, make them know it is. This makes what the characters do as a result and changes the way they act and the choices they make. The evaluation of the risks changes the plot.
The Stakes Can Change
Maybe at the beginning your character is poor and steals a loaf of bread to feed themselves. The stake is then avoiding getting caught. But maybe you don’t want that to be the main conflict of the story. So the stakes must change.
Maybe the character does get caught and put in jail. Great, now they’re in a bad situation. But maybe in prison they overhear the guards or fellow prisoners talking about a plan to assassinate the king.
Now the stakes have increased. Your character is now privy to information that is a big deal. How do they proceed? Do they hate the king and join the plot? Do they try to get the king to listen? Do they try to use this information to threaten the king for their own benefit? What stakes come from those options? How do they increase?
In Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship was just kind of walking around for a while. However, they are forced to go through Moria. Gandalf “dies”, they need sanctuary in Lothlorien. Then they lose members, are separated, and so on. Other nations and players get involved. As the story goes on, the stakes get higher. More is at risk. The situation becomes more desperate.
So change your stakes and turn up the volume on them as you need to.
Build the Tension
I was once in a group project for school. Started out great, everyone was on the same page, but then a couple group members got lazy or feigned cluelessness. Now instead of worrying about if our PowerPoint was formatted prettily, we were worried about the grade at large. We were forced to do work for other group members or risk a bad grade/presentation. At first it was a minor inconvenience, but then it turned into frustration and borderline resentment for having to do more than the agreed upon delegation of work.
That’s a very minimal example, but the tension in your story needs to build. This is a personal thing, but I like it when tension builds within the “good guy” group. The players get frustrated with each other, disagree, even hurt each other for the sake of the larger goal if needed, betrayal, and so on. You can do it anyway you want, though.
In Hamlet, Hamlet doesn’t start out calling the uncle out on his crap. Hamlet gets underhanded, sneaky, “the play’s the thing”. We see scenes from the uncle, some of the other characters are unaware of what’s happening, the king tries to kill Hamlet, and so on. This builds. People die, the king gets characters to hate Hamlet, Hamlet screws up, until we get the infamous poison and death scenes.
Tension can come in many forms. The character learns new information through dialogue, something in the plot/environment changes, they experience a big revelation, etc.
They first key to tension is not to reveal it all right away. In the example with the thief who overhears a plot, he shouldn’t just rush into the king’s court in chapter 2 and reveal the plot. Let it build.
The second key is that if you build tension, a good rule of thumb is to break it. We’ve all been in a tense situation where one party or we ourselves couldn’t take it anymore and explode(s). Have a straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak.
Resting and Breathing
This will depend on what you’re writing, but it’s a good rule of thumb to let your characters chill and breathe once in a while.
This is where the concept of comic relief comes in, but it could be anything. It could be a walk, it could be setting up camp in a peaceful area, it could be having a few drinks in a tavern.
This lets your readers breathe too. Don’t overseers your characters. Allow them to sit and talk once in a while. It’s also a good point to give more information or world build a little.
Let the tension ebb and flow, don’t forget to breathe.
Give them a Win
It’s good advice to beat your characters up a bit, even if they win in the end. This avoids overpowered or boring characters. However, if your characters are constantly getting shit storms rained on them, this can get tiring for them and the reader.
Let them win, even if it’s a little win. They find some helpful information, they defeat one of the big bad’s strategies for killing them, they meet someone willing to help them, they find shelter before the nasty rainstorm hits, they get a letter from a loved one letting the character know they are okay, etc.
If your characters are constantly being crapped on, give them hope. Something they can hang on to other than “I have to do this to save the world.” Remember your characters are human, and if any normal person was put in a situation where they were beaten down constantly, at some point we’d all throw our hands up and say “I’m done.” and leave the situation to its own fate.
That’s why hope is important. For Frodo, it was Sam. For Harry Potter, it was his friends and loved ones. And so on.
Your character has a goal, but they are taking a huge risk being involved at all. Maybe it’s a nearly impossible goal and so much is on the line. What’s stopping the character from going “Nah, you’ll have to find someone else.”?
Active characters need reasons to be doing what they’re doing that is in line with what they want to accomplish. This needs to be established and maintained. Why can’t your character just pack it in and go home?
“But they have to or else the story ends!” isn’t a good answer, for reasons I hopefully don’t have to explain.
Is your character honor bound? Did they swear a vow? Do they have nothing to go back to do? What do they lose if they don’t get involved?
You need to tell the reader why this character is keeping on despite everything that happens to them. Are they scared? Do they want to go home? Do they want revenge? Do they want to save something/someone? And so on.
Risk and Reward
If you’re keen on stocks, high risk investments can reap high rewards. The lower the risk, the lower the reward.
This is how you balance risk and goals.
Your character is an assassin going to the king’s court to seduce the prince/princess in order to gain their trust and kill them. If they’re caught, they’ll be killed. If they achieve the goal, they’ll be rewarded well within the faction.
This is high risk goal, but the reward is also high. If the reward isn’t as high as the risk or vice versa, your story can suffer for it.
Balance the risk with the reward and make it personal, add on things that build the tension. Maybe the assassin becomes good friends with the prince/princess and second guesses themselves. They can’t protect them and kill them. So where do they go from there?
Establish the Stakes as Soon as You Can
This makes the reader care.
Remember your characters are strangers and your world is foreign on page 1. Establishing how high the stakes are as soon as possible will get the readers interested and emotionally invested in the story.
They don’t have to be as high as they are at the climax, and the tension should build, but you need to introduce the risks as soon as you can.
Remind the Reader
You need to make sure the reader remembers how the stakes are as the story progresses. Remind us.
There are infinite ways to do this. Let’s look at Hamlet again. Shakespeare constantly remind the audience of the stakes through the whole thing. The soliloquies for one where Hamlet tells us all about what he’s thinking, feeling, and what he’s going to try next. Other characters tell us about them.
The key is not to halt the action. Hamlet tells the audience what he thinks and feels, but also the next choice on his “let’s try this” list.
Stakes are not action. Action is action. Stakes often have to wait until the next plot thing happens. Don’t let the action fall in order to remind the reader of the stakes.
Stakes are a huge deal. Evaluate what your characters are trying to accomplish, what they care about, and then plan the stakes in accordance. Use them to fuel the conflict, keep them overhead, allow time to breathe, and let it culminate.
Your character is in disguise infiltrating the enemy’s court/faction to poison their drink. Write this scene.
- Do they fail?
- How do they disguise themselves?
- How do they feel about the situation? Why are they there?
- How do they not get caught?