When you’re writing a story, one of the key elements that keeps your reader turning that page is to “increase the stakes”. So what does this mean and how can you achieve it?
What are the stakes of a story?
Pretty much what it says on the tin. What’s at stake for your character as your story unfolds? The higher the stakes, the tighter the tension and the bigger the investment a reader has in your story.
So when you’re thinking about the stakes of any story, you need to understand what your character wants or needs, what your character has to lose – which is your story’s central conflict – and what they stand to gain.
You also need a clear idea of what stands in the way of them getting their heart’s desire and what’s at risk if they go after it. And you need to increase the consequences of every decision they make.
High stakes don’t necessarily have to involve dragons, battles and the end of the world as we know it, but your character needs to feel as though there’s a chance the world that they know may end – and they need to feel strongly enough about that to fight hard for what they know and love.
Readers, on the other hand, have to be invested in your characters and the story’s central conflict to keep turning the pages.
If the central conflict is one that could be easily sorted out by two people having a conversation rather than finding reasons not to have a conversation, your stakes are not high enough.
So if your beta readers aren’t as hooked on your story as you’d like them to be, or if they make comments like “not much is happening in this section”, then you need to ratchet up the tension in your story. You need to increase the stakes.
How do you do it? Read on.
5 ways to raise the stakes in your story
1. Make it personal
Even in Hollywood blockbusters about alien invasions and meteor strikes, the end of the world is personal. The hero or heroine is trying to save their family or their dog or their grandmother. (Or, yes, the cat.)
By finding the personal stakes in the central conflict, you immediately give the reader a character to invest in and identify with. Choose your point-of-view character with care and then make every scene about them and their story – even as the alien hoards descend.
In The Mapmaker Chronicles, for instance, I created a race to map the world – I could have sent out my three mapmakers to compete for the honour of being the one to do that, but by ensuring that every person involved in the race is competing for a prize of incalculable value to them – freedom, honour, or wealth – I made it personal.
2. Make it human
The plot of any story is created when your point-of-view character makes decisions. If they decide A, the story moves one way; if they decide B, the story heads in a different direction. So the plot comes back to who your character is and the choices they make.
Raising the stakes means letting readers see the consequences of those decisions – whether they’re right or wrong. If characters are too perfect and always get it right, the story will be dull. Having your character live with the risk (and consequences) of getting it wrong, raises the stakes.
3. Keep things moving
If tension is one ingredient for creating a compelling story, pacing is another. Pacing is the flow of your story, the ups and downs.
Authors control the pace of their story by controlling the levels of description, exposition, and information in each scene – the more time (and words) you spend describing a character’s thoughts or the details of a setting, the slower that scene will feel to the reader.
As you approach the climax of a story, you might notice an author using more dialogue, shorter sentences and action (whether it be movement or decision making) to keep things moving forward.
Have a look at your own manuscript and look at where you can prune or pare back to make the stakes higher and the story stronger.
4. Put a clock on it
One tried-and-tested way to instantly raise the stakes of any story is to put a clock on it. No matter what goal your character is trying to achieve, putting a time frame around it or time limit on it will immediately add pressure.
In The Fire Star, the first Maven & Reeve mystery, for example, it’s not enough that Maven & Reeve have to find the dazzling jewel that has gone missing, but they have to do it before a wedding takes place in three days – or they’ll lose everything that’s dear to them.
5. Make every scene count
Once you’ve finished the draft of your story, go back through it and write a list of exactly what happens in every scene. You’re not looking to see whether your overall theme is being realised or whether the writing in that scene is particularly beautiful, you’re focussing on the story.
If nothing happens to move the story forward, ask yourself why that scene is there. Is it about world building? Or character development? Most likely it’s about backstory or information dumping.
Take that information, world building or character development and weave it into a scene where the story is progressing. Trust that the reader will take it all on board, even as they lose themselves in the plot.
Allison Tait is the author of three epic middle-grade adventure series for kids: The Mapmaker Chronicles, The Ateban Cipher and the Maven & Reeve Mysteries. A presenter at AWC and former co-host of the So You Want To Be A Writer podcast, Al’s next middle-grade novel will be out in July 2023. Find out more about her at allisontait.com.