5 Simple Ways to Create High Stakes in Your Story

Fiction writers are told they must create high stakes. What are stakes and why are they so important in fiction? Simply put, stakes are about anything that can be gained or lost. Stakes can be tangible or abstract. Your job may be at stake if you keep showing up late to work. Your sense of self-respect may be at stake if you fail to speak up against a wrong being committed in front of you.

Just like real people, our characters have desires, fears, and aspirations. And when you put those things at risk—in situations where they might be forfeited—you are creating stakes.

Think how boring a story would be if the main character is not challenged in any way. If everything in her life was easy and great. If they didn’t really care about anything.

Compelling stories are all about stakes. Your character has to care about something, and when you threaten what matters to her, you bring believable, riveting tension to your story. Stakes emerge as the driving force that propels characters through their narrative arcs.

Stakes can be subtle, emotional, personal, hidden. They can be hugely public, impacting thousands or millions of people. Your story may have personal, public, or both types of stakes. But be sure you have this element running through every page of your story!

Pay attention to these five ways to create high stakes in your story:

1. Make the Stakes Both Personal and Public

Public stakes, simply, are stakes that impact characters other than your protagonist. By intertwining public and personal stakes, you create a wide scope of conflict. The objective in traditional, expected story structure is that, whether you start with low or high stakes, you raise the stakes incrementally and build to the big climax where the protagonist’s goal is resolved.

You can have your character’s actions and decisions make life harder for himself and the goal more difficult to attain, but consider finding ways to have those actions adversely affect the people around him—especially those he cares about.

A man that loses his temper and chews out his boss may lead to his getting fired. But think how that can create conflict in his marriage, especially if the couple are already in financial difficulty. Think how their children might be traumatized by the escalation of arguing. Maybe, as a consequence of this one incident, a child runs away in the night and something terrible happens to her.

This is how personal stakes can ripple outward to be huge public stakes.

2. Keep Raising the Stakes

When you are plotting out your story (which I hope you do!), take a look at your list of scenes and the action that takes place. Consider how to bring in obstacles, barriers, setbacks, reversals, and twists that will metaphorically make your character take two steps forward, then three steps backward. Force your character to rethink, regroup, and draw on personal and external sources of strength, wisdom, and persistence to stay the course. Raising your stakes in every scene is the goal!

3. Align Stakes with Character and Goal

The efficacy of stakes hinges upon their alignment with the character’s true nature and motivations. Each sacrifice, decision, and risk undertaken by the protagonist must be aligned with their core values. Whether it’s a reluctant hero thrust into an epic quest or a flawed antihero grappling with his own demons, the stakes must resonate authentically.

Crafting stakes that align with character and goal requires that you delve deep into the psyche, exploring the intricacies of their motivations and vulnerabilities. By understanding what drives the character, you can imbue every decision with significance and every sacrifice with meaning. It is through this alignment that readers empathize with the protagonist’s struggles, triumphs, and failures.

4. Shine a Light on Universal Themes to Amplify Stakes

Try to tap into universal themes that resonate with readers across cultures and generations. Whether it’s love, loss, redemption, or the quest for identity, if you build your stakes on morals, ethics, or beliefs that are challenged and put to the test, readers will find it easy to empathize.

Creating a moral dilemma that forces a character to choose between two options that are both offensive or untenable is a terrific way to infuse your story with high tension and high stakes (remember Sophie’s Choice?).

5. Strategize Conflict and Consequence to Intensify Stakes

Crafting compelling stakes involves more than just raising the stakes; it requires the skillful use of conflict and consequence to intensify them. If each possible choice of your character leads to even higher stakes, impacting more and more people, you will achieve that build in rising action readers long for.

Whether it’s incorporating time limits, moral dilemmas, or the risk of irreversible consequences, conflict and consequence serve to heighten the stakes and keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Resolving Stakes

By the climax and/or resolution of your story, those stakes must be resolved and in a satisfying way (whether a happy or not-so-happy ending). If you’re leaving your ending hanging, you’ll have some stakes in question by the last page, to be resolved in the next book(s) of your series. But the main plot goal must be reached and the primary stakes related to your story resolved.

In my YA sci-fi Time Sniffers, my protagonist, Bria, finally rescues her mother trapped in a time eddy. All the high stakes of the crazy time-travel adventure are resolved … but one. One of the time sniffers (alien camo-dogs) has been captured, and in the final scene the characters learn of this development and know they must now work a plan to rescue it. Thus the stakes are set up for book 2.

Don’t ignore the stakes! Be sure every scene reminds the reader what’s at stake, for whom, and why. And strategize how to elevate the stakes higher and higher so that your big climax will be exciting, tense, and satisfying for your readers.

Featured Photo by Pedro Forester Da Silva on Unsplash

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