Episode 114: Raise the Stakes

On September 26, 2020, Kasie and Rex took on the escalating tension and drama that makes your story less boring. Here’s what it means to Raise the Stakes:

Theme for the day

Raise the Stakes


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • What are stakes?
  • Why do you need them?
  • Low, high, internal, and other types
  • How do you raise them without putting everyone in life threatening danger?
What could possibly go wrong? — Photo by Manea Catalin on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

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So we talked about tragic flaws and then about character motivation and in this, the third installment of our “Back to Storytelling Basics” series (unofficial just decided this minute that this is a series), we bring you: Raise the Stakes.

So what are “stakes”? Well, it’s what makes the story you’re telling interesting. It’s why we care. Why we keep reading. It’s why sometimes people stop reading because, come on, this is booooorrrrriiiinnnng.

Stakes give a story key things like:

  • Urgency — something has to give, the current condition is unsustainable
    • A building collapses and our hero is holding the debris off a child’s head, clearly he cannot continue to do so, but if he drops it, what happens?
    • Our hero is dropped over the side of a boat with his hands tied behind his back. He’s going to drown!
  • Consequences — whatever choice is made, the fallout will be significant
    • Even when the character decides not to do anything, that’s still a choice, right? 
  • Rules — we (as readers) understand that there is a choice and who has to make it
    • Even sci fi and fantasy novels have the classic stakes, right? We know what happens when someone is betrayed or abducted
  • Immediacy — we can relate within a few degrees with the choice and the consequences

This link breaks down an action scene in a movie, reminding us that the immediacy of the stakes is what helps the reader get invested.

This link talks about classic storytelling models:

  • The journey and return (Wizard of Oz)
  • The hero’s journey (Fellowship of the Ring)
  • Rags to riches (or reverse)

Don’t forget our classic literary conflicts:

  • Man vs. nature
  • Man vs. himself
  • Man vs. fate
  • Man vs. society
  • Man vs. technology
  • Man vs. the unknown or technology

In each of these classic structures or conflicts, you have some classic categories of stakes:

  • Injury or disability — physical deterrent to being able to complete the task at hand
  • Loss of source of power — primary weapon is not available
  • Loss of friends or companion — primary help or resources are unavailable
  • Revelation of a secret (others find out the MC’s) — that may result in that loss of friend, right?
  • Learning a secret (MC finds out something s/he didn’t know) — feeling betrayed, can no longer trust allies, friends, etc.

Segment 2

Why do you need them?

So the story doesn’t suck of course. If there’s nothing at stake, why bother reading the story? Things are just doing to be the same after this, right? So why keep reading?

Stakes help the character grow:

  • Grow up! When Wendy chooses to take her brothers home from Neverland, when Alice stands up to the Queen of Hearts, When Dorothy realizes home is where she belongs
  • Be brave! When Neville Longbottom stands up to Harry and Ron, when Edna Pontellier moves out of her husband’s house and into her studio — characters have had enough, they step out of their comfort zone and they can never go back to what they were before
  • Be repentant!

Stakes help the plot progress:

  • Villains are impatient, they’ll force the hero to decide
  • Nature, technology, or society can all make choices that force the hero to act sooner than he would have liked
  • Who doesn’t love a countdown?

Stakes increase the pace of the story:

  • Don’t write real dialogue
  • Don’t write a “day in the life”
  • Don’t David Copperfield us to death.

This article says, “stakes are the negative consequences of failure,” meaning, if the character doesn’t do Y then X, or if he decides Y then X. Wherein Y is the decision or the action and X is the negative effect of failing.

Segment 3

Before we get to “how” on this, let’s talk about the different types of stakes. Because not all drama is the same. 

Low Stakes

Not to be confused with “no” or “minimal consequences” stakes, the Low Stakes play is a subtle or smaller conflict that can build toward a much, much bigger one. This link talks about how blockbuster movies always seem to go to the extreme on stakes.

You knew we were done with The Avengers when we’d saved the planet from aliens, right? No? Oh, right, we had to wipe out half the world’s population. Poof. Gone. Dissolved.

And how do we get them back? Bring them back from where they went? Right the greatest wrong? Without erasing the alternative timeline of what’s occurred since they’ve been gone? Can’t turn back the clock, but … but …

Yeah, even I was like, “What?”

Not all stakes are life or death. Some are basic, “Do we or don’t we?”

Some classic low stakes:

  • A secret revealed — a small deception that may alter the protagonist’s view of mom, dad, or some other trusted person
  • Employee review, or a babysitter’s report — someone reports your bad behavior
  • Bad grade on a test, evaluation, or capstone — do or not pass go and move to the next stage
  • Embarrassment, shame, or humiliation — my least favorite of these is someone entering an opposite-sex bathroom or lockerroom for two reasons 1) gender-separated bathrooms are a trite device, and 2) characters who do this are often putting on a front of bravery when really, it’s not that brave
  • Flubbing a line on stage, messing up a musical performance, or finishing second or third place in a competition (or audition) — the show goes on
  • Licensure or certification for some “next level “ — failing a driver’s license test, having the wrong paperwork at the DMV (Kasie’s short story about going crazy in NC)

You can build a successful story around ideas that have low stakes for the reader as long as there’s high investment from the protagonist — like cheesy teen movies (“OMG! That’s sooooo embarrassing!”)

High Stakes — okay, so death (obvy) but what else?

  • Ruination — social a la Dangerous Liaisons, or financial and social a la The Rise of Silas Lapham, or Fantine (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables) whose pregnancy by a man who refused to marry her left her desolate
  • Destruction — physical such as a bomb, an earthquake, an explosion; mental as in Ophelia in Hamlet
  • Betrayal — we’ve used Iago and Othello before; consider Brutus and Julius Caesar; James Bond and Vesper in Casino Royale — his origin story, how he was so utterly damaged by that woman, right? Is Casablanca a story of betrayal?
  • Financial collapse — Tennessee Williams was preoccupied with this, a lot of Southern writers have been — the “former glory” of the South, squandered, right? Through no fault of their own, consider Blanche DuBois living with the animal Stanley and her survivalist sister, Stella
  • Failure of epic proportions — Apocalypse Now, Platoon, basically any story about Vietnam from the American perspective, right?  The Road by Cormac McCarthy — so any post-apocalyptic story?

This link from Writer’s Digest breaks down three types of stakes for us:

  • Personal Stakes — not just what the hero wants, but why s/he wants it; think Briony telling the story in Ian McEwan’s Atonement — her telling the story is her way of atoning for what she did, the way she doomed her sister, Cecelia, and Robbie. The stakes of the story are much, much higher, but Briony’s personal stake in simply telling it are the possibility of forgiveness, of Atonement. This book won the Book Prize in 2001 and absolutely should have. It’s brilliant.
  • Ultimate Stakes — who is your character? What values, principles, or creeds does s/he live by? Will s/he betray those things for something s/he wants? This is where the personal, physical, professional, and plot stakes all combine — consider Girl on the Train where we know our narrator is in danger, she’s also got to get her shit together, and she also needs to reveal what she knows about a crime she witnessed.
  • Public Stakes — it can’t get worse than this … can it? What are public stakes? Sometimes they cannot be overcome. They are the end, sadly, for our protagonist. From the blog: “the problems that are imposed … are from the outside: conflicts not inward and circumstances not of her own making. Second, these problems deepen to a degree that finally makes them so big that they attain a universal scale.”

Segment 4

So how do you do it? This blog offers a list and we love a list, so let’s start there.

Five Surefire Ways to Raise the Stakes:

  1. Add personal stakes to the larger conflict — what does the protagonist stand to win (or lose) if the big conflict works out (or doesn’t)
  2. Make sure every single choice the character makes has consequences — ruin a relationship, cost him money, erode trust or faith, set him back on the journey
  3. Use tension and pacing — short sentences, dialogue, not narrative, and action, not exposition
  4. Introduce a time limit — departure, end-of-term
  5. Think about stakes per scene — go scene by scene and add stakes to every single scene.

Also from that blog, some questions to ask to test whether you’ve added sufficient stakes for the story:

  • What will happen if your protagonist fails to achieve their goal? What are they risking? What might they lose?
  • How personally invested is your protagonist in the outcome of the central conflict? How much does achieving their goal matter to them?
  • What are the external consequences of your protagonist’s actions (e.g. how will they affect other characters/the world at large)? What are the large-scale repercussions that might come of them failing to achieve their goal?
  • Are you telling the story of the defining moment of your protagonist’s life? The biggest, most life-changing and important thing that has ever happened to them?

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