Stakes: an element of storytelling that is difficult to quantify. It’s the component of a narrative that serves as an enticing hook to keep a reader invested in a story from page to page. Yet, at the same time, stakes can be the one factor that enrages or turn-offs a reader if not handled well. Because a stake is, at its core, incredibly volatile. Because stakes are built on the idea of probability. A risk. A gamble. An action that isn’t guaranteed success. And, as with any gamble, if you win or lose too often, the thrill of anticipation can quickly turn bland or bitter. But stakes are the delicious flavor of the story, the glue that binds your reader’s heart to your characters.
So, then you ask, what’s the best way to approach stakes in a story? A good place start is to play twenty questions with yourself. Begin with the obvious questions like: What is at stake? What does a character stand to gain? What do they stand to lose? And why do they need to act? How soon do they need to take action? And then go down the list to the more specific details like individual scenes, characters, and actions.
Take a Gamble, Take a Risk: A good formula for establishing your stakes is to determine the risk by balancing rewards vs. consequences. If you want to raise your stakes, increase the risk through consequences. You can determine risk by comparing how much a character stands to lose vs how much they stand to gain. The greater the odds are stacked against the character, the higher the risk becomes. However, it isn’t until failure occurs that your reader will finally believe in your stakes. You must be willing to commit to a negative consequence to make your risks believable.
Up the Consequences: A quick and easy method to increase stakes is to have several consequences impact your story and characters. The more the protagonist fails, the slimmer the odds become, and you will create an effective bottleneck of hardship for your character. If you want a good example of crafting high stakes based on consequences, look at the “Zombie Narratives” of the 2000’s-2010’s. A good portion of these stories raised the stakes by constantly having terrible things occur to the characters, creating a greater sense of anxiety and anticipation for the reader/viewer as time and time again and again, the characters faced failure and consequences. However, some of these stories ran into a problem: they never provided rewards. This is the Achilles heel of a story that is hyper focused on risks, consequences, and stakes: if you never give rewards to the characters, you will end up with very angry and dissatisfied readers. Even in the most hopeless dystopian story, a reader still wants a reason to celebrate. A purpose for the actions of the characters. Rewards and successes aren’t just for your characters, they’re for your readers too.
Provide Rewards: Typically speaking, rewards lower stakes. The best way to think of rewards is like the oasis in the middle of a desert. It’s a nice place to rest, especially if the rest is well-earned after a long expedition, but if the oasis isn’t the end of the journey, you need to move on. The more and more your characters succeed in their actions and goals, the less your reader will be concerned for your characters. Think of stakes like a bell curve, risk and consequences increase the curve, while rewards decrease it. And, overdoing rewards can result in a flat-lined narrative that bores the reader, even if you have built up an incredible finale where the character achieves all they have ever wanted or desired. If the character has never lost, then they have no reason to celebrate their final victory. If a character has never suffered, then they cannot appreciate joy. If a character has never failed at love, then they will never know the value of the relationships they have.
And Balance Everything for Tone: Finally, stakes can help you determine the tone of your story. You want a lighter, happier tone? Let your consequences and failures come with rewards. A darker tone? Let your rewards come with consequences. A tragic tone? Start off by showering your character with unearned reward after reward, then take it all away. An underdog tone? Start off with an almost unfair amount of consequence after consequence, then allow the character to finally receive its reward at the very end.
What are some of your thoughts on stakes?