My friend Erynn recently emailed me this question. “I’ve submitted to The Company’s critique group a few times and one of your comments kind of stuck with me. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind giving me a little writing advice? You mentioned the last time I submitted that I wasn’t quite conveying the stakes very clearly. Do you have advice on ways to do that? I’m struggling a little bit there. Just Something to point me in the right direction. “
I’d love to help! Thanks for asking, Erynn. With her permission, I’m sharing her question and my response.
What are stakes in a story?
Stakes are the idea that something very good will happen if the protagonist is successful in his mission, but something very bad will happen if he fails.
In Star Wars, if Luke is successful then he’ll achieve his dream of becoming a star fighter pilot and advance peace, freedom, and prosperity in the galaxy. If he fails, the Rebel Alliance will be crushed by tyranny once and for all, all hope will be lost, and millions of people will perish. We have a reason to root for Luke beyond just our good nature as humans because we agree that the cost of failure is unreasonable and the value of success is great.
Great stories include BOTH positive and negative stakes. I think as writers we tend to focus on the cost of failure (which is a better motivator for most people!), but stories become stronger with positive stakes. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a great example of this. The negative stakes are well supported throughout the story: Lenny is a liability and could at any time hurt other people and ruin George’s life once again. However, this is balanced by a positive stake—George and Lenny’s dream of having a little land.
As the negative stakes intensify throughout the story, Steinbeck also continues to develop the positive stakes. About halfway through the story, Candy, one of the other ranch hands, agrees to pitch in his savings towards George and Lenny’s goal and suddenly the dream is possible. It’s no longer abstract, it can happen and they even have a specific timeline. Now not only is there the continued threat of something bad happening, but the men have a really good thing at risk as well.
Stakes are a relationship
The value of any stakes is only proportional to your ability as a writer to communicate them and make them real to the reader.
The more strongly your readers can identify with the protagonist, the easier it is for them to appreciate the stakes. Teenage boys can easily identify with Luke Skywalker’s positive stakes because they can relate to the idea of feeling trapped with lofty goals that aren’t understood.
It would be more difficult to get the same teenage male reader invested in a mid-30s female protagonist’s stakes of finding a husband and having a child before her biological clock runs out.
The more easily the reader can identify with the protagonist’s goals for his or her own life, the more they’ll accept the stakes, relate to them, and invest emotionally in the story.
However, all humans are essentially empathetic. We always relate to well-developed characters. If your protagonist becomes a real person to the reader, we will share their hopes and fears.
At some point you’ve had a friend that was really broken up about something that you didn’t understand. Something terrible happened, by their own account, that you can’t relate to because you just don’t share the same value. Nonetheless, you still feel empathy for your friend simply because of your love for your friend. Even if you can’t understand why they would cry over their pet gerbil running away (it’s just a rodent?), you can still have an empathetic human connection with them in which you share their pain.
In order for that empathetic connection to happen, the character has to become real to the reader and the stakes have to be clearly communicated.
How do I set the stakes in a story?
And now we come to Erynn’s question. How do I convey the stakes in a story?
The answer is surprisingly simple. You just have to tell the reader what terrible thing will happen if the hero fails and what marvelous outcome awaits if he’s successful.
The most common mechanism for accomplishing this is with a guide character. Most great stories (practically all, in fact), include a sage mentor character who helps the protagonist understand his mission, but more importantly, helps the reader to understand what the rules and the stakes are.
In Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi fulfills this role. He invites Luke on a quest, explains how the force works, and explains that the Death Star is a super weapon that will shift the balance of power in the universe forever. Obi Wan never talks to the viewer directly, but his dialogue with Luke is subtly filled with information that is really for the viewer’s benefit.
In Of Mice and Men, Slim is our sage ranch hand. He explains what usually happens to ranch hands and sets the rules of the universe which George and Lenny are striving to overcome. We primarily learn about George and Lenny’s goals and Lenny’s propensity for destruction through George and Lenny’s dialogue with each other, but Slim confirms the fears that George implies. For all we know, George could be exaggerating or just being dramatic, but we trust Slim.
The value of a guide is that he is a trustworthy, objective character. We’re inclined not to trust the protagonist about the stakes because we’re used to people aggrandizing their prospects and exaggerating their own dangers. If it was only Luke telling us he was going to save the universe, we’d chalk it up to teenage fantasy and illusions of grandeur. When Obi Wan tells us what Luke is capable of, and Luke even rejects it to some degree, we believe it. Obi Wan doesn’t have any reason to puff Luke up.
The guide is our primary mechanism for communicating stakes. The guide gets to say things out loud and make the stakes abundantly clear. Your secondary tool is worldbuilding.
Worldbuilding is more subtle, but great writers are practically always validating and raising the stakes through their world building. Don’t choose details of the world to describe randomly, choose details that also contribute to your reader’s understanding of success and failure in your story world. This is true even if you believe your story is set in the real world.
What can you show the reader to confirm the danger or the prospects of the protagonist’s mission?
Has anyone else failed at this quest before? What happened to them? Show the reader the gallows hanging three men who dared to defy the crown. The reader needs to see a sign that proverbially confirms, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” In Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck uses George and Lenny’s own story to show us what can happen—at the last place they worked they were run out of the town and nearly killed because of Lenny.
Similarly, you could introduce a character that had an opportunity to pursue a similar mission but never took the leap. Show the reader what the protagonist’s life will look like if he takes no action.
Raising the Stakes
In the words of Billy Joel (kind of), “Tell them about it.”
The most common and effective two mechanisms for communicating stakes are with a guide character and with intentional world building that specifically illuminates the cost of failure and the cost of inaction.
When we’re not paying attention, we often don’t notice how the stakes are being established in a story. It’s just a little comment here, and a visual description there, but it adds up in our subconscious.
Watch a movie you love with stakes in mind. How are the creators specifically establishing the good things that will happen if the hero is successful and the pitiful outcomes at risk if the hero fails?
Next time you watch a movie or read a book in which you felt like you just weren’t very invested in the story, pay attention and ask yourself if stakes are the reason why. Did the creator fail to communicate the stakes? Or were the stakes there, but they were just too unrelatable to you and the character development couldn’t bridge the gap?
Stakes are what keep us turning the page in a story. That’s why no one wants to read your diary—unless they’re very interested in the character.
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