Setting the Stakes

Posted: September 21, 2016 in Uncategorized, Writing
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Last week I talked about the importance of stakes in your fiction.  Basically: get some.

Fine, but how do you find them?  Where do you put them?  How do you make them work?  To clarify, “stakes” are the thing the hero of your story is after.  The thing they are invested in.  The thing that makes your reader want to turn the page to find out if they succeed.  Most tension is derived from the stakes, because if we don’t care about them, roadblocks won’t bother us.

There are two basic kinds of stakes: Personal Stakes and Public Stakes.

At first glance, you might think Public Stakes are automatically bigger, and therefor better for your story.  Saving the world, or the town, or even just the clock tower are bigger than your character, and so the obstacles are naturally bigger as well.  However Personal Stakes are often more emotional, and if you have a character in which your reader can identify, those personal stakes become magnified.  An orphan boy who is forced to live under the stairs is automatically more sympathetic than a local official.  So if that boy’s stakes are to become a wizard, say, your reader might be more interested than the governor trying to save the town from bankruptcy.  Surely, keeping thousands of people from ruin is bigger than one boy becoming a wizard, but which do you prefer to read about?

Of course, of you can include both kinds of stakes in your story, that much better.  But if you have to pick just one, stories with strong personal stakes tend to be more popular and sell better.

So you have your stakes.  Where do you put them?  My advice — as close to the beginning as possible. Certainly within the first 50 pages.  It’s not absolutely necessary to put them on page 1, but the earlier the better.  Getting readers (and agents) to turn the page once they are invested is easy (well easier). But how do you get them invested in the first place?  Your stakes.  They have to want it as much as your character.  So if you can build you stakes into your hook, you’re golden.  The natural place to define the stakes is the Inciting Incident, which is the first major plot point, but stakes = tension, and tension = suspense, and all of those = reader interest.  So if you’re struggling to find a way to make your opening irresistible, consider introducing your stakes early.

Okay, you’ve gotten your stakes and introduced them.  Now, how do you make them work for you?  Simple: you add suspense.  That boy who wants to be a wizard?  Make his family block his efforts, introduce a bully, make him powerless to pursue his dream.  Oh, and put him in the dark about his past and any advantage he might have.  Create roadblocks.  Add time limits.  Let him fail and lose faith and momentum.  Build the tension and suspense.  The purpose of all this is to force your character to act, and give him/her opportunities to fail, which in turn further raise the stakes.  And the purpose of all of that is to make your reader unable to put your book down, because they need to know what happens next and what happens in the end.

And that’s all there is to it.  Easy as becoming a wizard.

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Comments
  1. Sam Redshaw says:

    I thought this was a really great overview, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    Excellent article, John (as usual!), I follow this premise when doing my thing as Features Writer for a local paper as I believe it’s imperative to hook the reader in the first paragraph. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Best wishes, Sandra

    Like

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