Raising the Stakes in Your Story

Back to the Future (1985)

Writers often get notes that they need to “raise the stakes” in their story. Here are some thoughts on how to do that:

1. A simple formula to determine what is at stake in your story:

If my character(s) don’t do X, Y will happen.

Notice that this is the symbiotic relationship between character and plot at work. Character, what is happening, and what may happen playing off each other.

If Mrs. Bennett doesn’t marry off her five daughters, they will live in poverty after their father dies.

If Katniss doesn’t take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, her sister will certainly die.

If Dr. Ryan Stone doesn’t find a way to get back to Earth, she will die.

gravityspin

If Marty doesn’t get his parents to fall in love in the past, he and his siblings will cease to exist in the present.

If Princess Anna doesn’t find her sister and get her to reverse her spell, the kingdom will remain in an eternal winter.

Or, another way to put it is goal and outcome. Your character (hopefully) has a goal; the stakes are the possible (negative) outcome if she doesn’t accomplish the goal.

Goal: Mrs. Bennett is determined to marry off her daughters.

Negative outcome if she doesn’t accomplish goal: they live out their lives in poverty.

2. Ask yourself: is what’s at stake compelling enough?

Sometimes reducing your story down to what’s at stake can be a quick way to find out what may not be working. You may notice that not much of anything is at stake at all, or you’re writing a passive rather than pro-active character.

3. That doesn’t mean what’s at stake has to always be a matter of life and death. The important thing is that it matter a great deal to your character(s).

For instance, in the movie Tootsie, protagonist Michael can’t get a job acting because he’s so difficult to work with. He won’t end up starving in the streets–he can make a living as a waiter and acting teacher. But it’s vitally important to him that he work as an actor. It’s so important to him he’s willing to pretend he’s a woman to get a job.

Tootsie

If you convey how important what’s at stake for your character to your reader, they will be interested enough to keep reading/watching.

4. To make what’s at stake truly compelling, close off any alternatives before characters act.

This is a pet peeve of mine as a reader. I’ve seen even famous and otherwise talented writers make this mistake. They have characters choose a dangerous, even possibly fatal path without removing alternative and less dangerous options. Or, the characters never bother to consider other options.

Even when it’s not a life/death situation, readers will inevitably ask, “why doesn’t the protagonist do this or that instead?” This will immediately pull them out of the story.

In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins composes a situation where Katniss has only two choices: either she does nothing and watches her sister march off to her death in the games, or she takes her place and faces almost certain death herself.

Katnissvolunteer

There are no other alternatives. She can’t negotiate a different outcome with the oppressive leaders of her society. She can’t poke the girl next to her and ask her to take her sister’s place for her. Money (even if she had it) would not change the outcome. This, and the fact Katniss has a split second to make a choice, are why it’s such a visceral scene.

In the Tootsie example, Michael is told no one will hire him as an actor, either in Hollywood or New York. His reputation is so well known, he is effectively blackballed. The only way he can work as an actor is not be himself.

Both examples immediately open up a question for the reader/viewer: what will happen to the character? Will Katniss survive? Will Michael get away with pretending to be a woman?

You don’t want them to ask why are they doing what they’re doing when another, easier path is open to them.

5. Keep raising the stakes as the story progresses.

Two very effective ways of doing this:

Go wide.

Or

Go deep.

With “go wide,” you start with a character who has something personal at stake, and then widen the stakes to include others. It can be the main character’s friends, their family, their society, their world, their galaxy, and so on.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy goal is to return home. What’s at stake is her family will think she is dead, which would break their hearts. As the story progresses, she encounters the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion who all have their own goals. Later, the Wizard commands Dorothy bring back the Wicked Witch of the West’s broom. When Dorothy vanquishes the Witch, the Witch’s minions hail her because she has freed them. By pursuing her own goals, she impacts her new friends, the Wizard, and Oz at large.

In Back to the Future, Marty’s initial goal is to escape from some terrorists who want to kill him, so he uses the time machine to get away. This deposits him in the past when his parents are teenagers. Like Dorothy, his goal is to go home, but by inserting himself in the past, he has possibly changed the future. He must bring his parents together so they can fall in love or he won’t exist in the present. The stakes aren’t just about him, but his brother, sister and parents, as well.

With “go deep,” you start with a character who has a goal that isn’t necessarily personal. As the story progresses, something happens to make it personal.

In the movie Jaws, Sheriff Brody goal is keeping the populace of his community safe from shark attacks. He’s persuaded by politicians and local businesses to keep the beaches open. Against his better judgment, he agrees. When the shark almost kills his son, his goal becomes personal. Guilt and anger propel him to go with the fisherman they hire to kill the shark.

Brodyshark

“Go deep” can also refer to a goal that helps to resolve a personal issue for the main character. In Jaws, by going on the expedition to kill the shark Brody eventually gets over his fear of the water, as well as the feeling that he is an outsider in his community.

In the movie Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone is struggling with depression because she is grieving the loss of her child. As the story progresses, the question isn’t just WILL she survive, but does she WANT to survive.

Going deep is also a great way to compose a character arc that resonates with your readers.

6. Don’t neglect other characters in your story–they should have their own goals and important things at stake, too.

Secondary characters’ goals may or may not jibe with the main character(s).

inigo

In The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya’s goal is to avenge his father. What’s at stake for him is the belief he will have failed his father if he doesn’t avenge him. This is different from what’s at stake for main characters Westley and Buttercup. Their goal is to rescue Buttercup from her engagement to Prince Humperdinck so they can marry and be happily in love. Inigo joins up with Westley so they can both accomplish their goals.

7. Antagonists, not surprisingly, usually have goals and stakes that conflict with the main character(s)’ goals and stakes.

In the same story, Prince Humperdinck’s goal is to marry Buttercup, murder her, and frame the neighboring kingdom. If he can’t accomplish these goals, he will not be able to start a war and eventually take over the other kingdom. (In this case, there’s another, more personal negative outcome: if he can’t beat Westley and stop Buttercup from running away with him, he will gain a life-long reputation as a coward.)

8. You can reset the stakes, but be careful not to ratchet down the tension.

Resetting the stakes is a common occurrence in series, whether it’s a book or television series, or a film franchise.

However, if you’re, say, writing a YA story about a teenage girl who has to help overthrow an oppressive government, don’t change the stakes to something like now she wants to go home and be elected prom queen. (That’s extreme, but just to give you an idea.)

In Gone with the Wind, in the first part of the book the stakes are simply surviving the war. When it’s over, the stakes change to whether Scarlett can regain what she lost in the war. When she regains what she lost and more the stakes change again, to will she lose those she loves because of her ruthless pursuit of money and power, and her inability to let go of an illusion of love.

Resetting stakes can be an amazing way to keep the reader engaged and make a long story or series feel fresh.

Related Articles:

Building Character by Raising the Stakes – (emergingwriters.us)

Raising the Stakes: Revising to Keep Readers Reading – (blog.janicehardy.com)

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