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Raising the Stakes
I’m currently in drafting mode, working on the sequel to my debut, Ivory and Bone. I’m definitely a planner (as opposed to a pantser,) and I'm working from an extensive outline. But even the most thoroughly planned novel doesn’t always flow onto the page without a hitch. (Okay, let’s be realistic. No novel flows onto the page without a hitch!) Often, when I’m struggling to translate a scene I’ve held in my mind into prose on the page, and it’s just...lying there, devoid of life...I’ll discover that the problem is a lack of stakes. Either nothing’s at risk, or there’s a lot at risk, but no one really cares. I have found that if I fix the stakes, I can often fix the scene.
You’ve probably heard that, to keep your reader’s attention, you need to keep raising the stakes. This is sound advice, but it’s also pretty vague. What does it mean to keep raising the stakes? Should you start with dismally low stakes so you have somewhere to go? If you start with life-and-death stakes, do you have to end with save-the-world stakes?
Both of these assumptions seem reasonable if you only look at the superficial meaning of the adage to “keep raising the stakes.” Higher mountains! Bigger guns! I wish it were that simple, but I’ve learned by trial and error that there’s a lot more to it than that. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
There is always something important at stake, even at the opening of the story.
One of my favorite stories to use as an example is the original Star Wars, both because IT’S SO GOOD and because most people are familiar with it (because IT’S SO GOOD!) In that story, Luke learns about some high stakes that are at play when he sees the holographic message from the princess. “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,” implies some very high stakes, especially when the call for help has been hidden on a droid by a desperate prisoner of a ruthless empire. And yet, in response to that original plea, Luke Skywalker says No. The stakes are high, but not to him. Instead, the stakes that matter to Luke—the higher stakes in his world—are the needs of his family on the farm. But as soon as that family is taken from him by that same empire, he is ready to fight.
So the stakes for Luke at the opening of the story may seem small in the grand scheme of things—“help the family,” does not have the same magnitude as “rescue the princess.” Except it does to Luke, because it’s his own family at stake.
So don’t start with dismally low stakes, because no one wants to read about things that don’t matter. But you can start with stakes that matter intensely and fiercely, but on a smaller scale.
Here’s another example. At the opening of The Wizard of Oz, the stakes for Dorothy are that she must protect Toto. The life of a dog may seem like smaller stakes compared to some of the challenges Dorothy will face later in the story, but not to Dorothy at that moment. When Dorothy runs away from home to protect Toto, the stakes are very high for her. They will get higher—and in a lot of ways, they will get wider and broader—but she will never get away from her need to protect her dog.
Which leads me to...
No matter how big the stakes become—even when they grow to save-the-world level in size—the stakes need to stay focused on something “small” for the reader to care.
Let’s look at Star Wars again. When we meet Han Solo, his motives are all self-serving. He needs to save his own skin. Granted, these are life-and-death stakes—they are significant—but he’s not striving to save the galaxy from the evil empire. But later, after he’s achieved his goal and gotten his reward, he comes back into battle and helps to—quite literally—save the world (err...galaxy.) But he doesn’t do this because the stakes have escalated and he’s been sucked in by the bigger, world-saving stakes. He does it because of the smaller stakes—the need to save his friends. Specifically, when he returns he acts to save one life—Luke’s. The stakes have both grown and shrunk, but it’s the smaller stakes that make Han act.
Han even jokes at the end that he couldn’t leave and let the others get all the credit and all the reward! This joke works because those things really were at stake in the scene—someone will get the credit for destroying the Death Star—but we know these stakes didn't play a part in what happened. Credit and reward once motivated Han, but they no longer do.
Which leads me to my final lesson learned about stakes...
Stakes are always going to depend on what matters most to your character.
Luke’s family, Dorothy’s dog, Han Solo’s friends. You can tell the most fascinating story with life-and-death, save-the-world stakes, but if the reader doesn’t feel that something matters to your character, she won’t care about your story.
I’ve learned this in a very hands-on way, by re-writing a scene over and over, frustrated by a lack of energy or excitement on the page. I’ve added more danger—higher heights to fall from, sharper blades to dodge. I’ve learned that a fight, no matter how fierce, is dull and boring if we don’t feel the weight of the thing the character is fighting for.
So yes—the adage to raise the stakes is a good one. This is what a writer should do. But it only works when the reader understands what matters. Then raise the stakes by putting that thing that matters at greater and greater risk.
The Wizard of Oz starts out with Dorothy trying to save her dog. Then the story raises the stakes. We are introduced to more characters and situations that matter to Dorothy, and those things—along with her dog—are put at greater and greater risk. In the end, she’s still trying to save Toto—plus a whole lot more—from a much more dangerous situation. And we care, because it all matters to Dorothy.
How do you feel about stakes? Do you find them to be a tricky part of writing? Do you have any methods or techniques to share? Please join the discussion in the comments!