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3 Key Places Where Stakes Will Shape Your Story’s Meaning

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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

A story launches when something happens to a character that lands him in a troubling predicament. Life as he knew it can no longer continue on in the same way. He needs to do something, and his progress toward his goal will be defined by a desire he hopes to achieve.

But lurking beneath his hopeful journey is the threat of engaging with circumstances he hopes to avoid. Those circumstances are what we call stakes.

Like electrified wires that guard the edges of your protagonist’s path—and which, after he passes, seem to grow closer to each other and strengthen behind him—the stakes for failure drive the protagonist ever forward. Why are such stakes necessary? Because when we humans decide that a goal is demanding too much of us, we can easily convince ourselves that we never really wanted to achieve that goal in the first place. The negative repercussions in those stakes remind the protagonist: Want to turn back? Zzzzt! Wrong answer.

Since in real life most of us have been socialized not to electrocute our friends if they stray from their goals, you have to have mad respect for a writer who is willing to be so harsh with characters they have come to love. But their stories will benefit, because strong stakes for failure can create a gripping read.

In every scene of your book, the point-of-view character should face negative consequences if he or she is not able to overcome the obstacles standing between them and the successful attainment of his scene goal. It isn’t enough for the reader to know of the menace that’s always lurking beneath the plot. Sometimes, the menace must gain the upper hand.

This is how readers will know that your protagonist’s striving matters.

Today I want to look at three key moments when engaging with the stakes will help shape your novel.

While forming the story goal

The power of an inciting incident is found in its mandate: the character must take action (create a story goal) in order to set things right, or else. If he fails to act, he’ll have to engage with highly undesirable consequences. Delay is not an option. He must move forward into the story.

As much as Dorothy might want to hang around and dance with the creepy-yet-colorful Lollipop Guild when she lands in Oz, L. Frank Baum made sure this was not an option. Dorothy’s house had landed on a wicked witch, whose ruby slippers had magically transferred to her feet. The Lollipop kids deem her a hero for killing the witch, but the deceased’s evil sister  wants the shoes back—and Dorothy can’t get them off her feet. When she hears that the Wizard of Oz might be able to help her, she must follow the Yellow Brick Road to find him.

Introducing the witch early provides impulsion to Dorothy’s journey, but it also tells us something about her. She didn’t mean to kill the witch and she doesn’t want to mess with this one either. Now, with stakes as high as her physical death (and her little dog’s, too!), she wants to get back to the people she loves in Kansas—and she’ll take all the help she can get.

Your inciting incident hasn’t completed its purpose until it incites action toward a story goal so that negative consequences can be avoided. In Steven Rowley’s tragicomic novel The Guncle, a gay man’s brother asks him to care for his young children after their mother’s death. Patrick’s inclination is to say no, since he knows nothing about raising children. The stakes, introduced right after the brother’s question is posed, are psychological: Patrick’s identity as a brother, uncle, friend, and partner are at risk.

His brother needs a three-month rehab stay to fight the opioid addiction that gripped him during his wife’s years-long battle with cancer and he needs it now so his kids can have a “whole” father. He’s physically shaking as he makes his request; it’s hard for Patrick to see. Patrick loved his sister-in-law deeply—she was his best friend and he wants to honor her memory. He cares about what happens to his niece and nephew. These are good reasons to want to help out, but as I’ve written here before, altruism is a weak plot motivation. We need stakes.

So what are the negative circumstances Patrick is hoping to escape telling us about him? He is still grieving the death of his own partner, which caused him to end his acting career. So far he’s avoided useful grief work, but his life is at a standstill. Purposeless. If he is ever going to move forward in life, he needs to heal his now doubly-broken heart.


The dark moment

In Where the Crawdad Sings by Delia Owens, protagonist Kya must fend for herself from a young age as one by one, family members leave her to ensure their own survival. She tries school but is mocked; social services is intent on parting her from the marsh she loves; developers want to take away her land. The story poses an interesting counterpoint to my opening notion in this post that most people are socialized not to do harm. Teenage Kya has grown up with little socialization other than the survivalist ways of nature on the marsh.

At the dark moment, all stakes come to bear (as they should!). Kya’s desire to stay on the marsh has cost her the only young man she ever loved; she is seduced and then abused by local football hero Chase, who she learns was engaged to another all along, and she now stands accused of his murder; lack of hard evidence has not swayed assumptions of guilt from a public who has never trusted her. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. These stakes reinforce both the importance and folly of Kya’s story goal to live out her life in peace on the marsh. It hasn’t worked out well, yet if she can’t achieve her goal, she might as well be dead.

Now, the reader fully values what brought her to this point and wonders if it’s possible to move on from such a precarious position. She’s facing consequences for failure on every side. The reader’s stomach is in knots as the verdict is read. Awesome—that’s just where Owens wants them.

The ending

Stakes will drive your story toward a resolution that matters. This is most obvious in a tragedy, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which the consequences of the climactic fight are so severe that no one can prevail. But even in more hopeful stories, it can be powerful to reinforce that the story’s stakes were real, even as your protagonist prevails. It’s hard to discuss specifics without egregious spoilers, but if examining how stakes can shape an ending interests you, try comparing the divergent endings of Andre Dubus III’s The House of Sand and Fog in the novel and film versions to see whether you found the tragedy or the “room for hope” more powerful.

As you head into your own second draft, and you’re thinking about what your novel is adding up to, consider how your stakes have set up the ending. What is it, exactly, you wanted to say about the human condition? Your novel’s resolution will sharpen its point.

Because we love our characters and empathize with their plights, it can be tempting to give all of them a happy ending. But doing so can oversimplify the impact of the journey your protagonist has been on. Giving an antagonist an unearned, 11th-hour turnaround can make your story forgettable by pulling the rug from beneath your plot. If instead of dying at Dorothy’s hand, the witch was so beguiled by the girl’s innocence that she gave up her terrorizing ways and opened a pop-up lollipop shop, you’ll leave the reader feeling she has wasted her time. Apparently, all those stakes the reader took seriously were of no consequence after all. Why did your protagonist need to strive so hard when even the character intent on keeping your her from succeeding was able to transform at story’s end by simply deciding to do so?

Your characters deserve your tough love. They need to be shaped by the consequences of failure so they can grow, believably, through their arc of inner change. Allow them to suffer from as many negative consequences that are needed to push them toward the prize they seek.

Stakes will help shape the nature of your story. We learn as much about a character from the dreams that entice him as we do when he says, “This stops here. Enough is enough.”

Inspire us: What’s the worst thing you’ve done for your character lately? How did that benefit your story? Have you also read manuscripts that seemed to have no story due to lack of stakes?

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