Along with “show don’t tell” and “write in an original voice,” “raise the stakes” is one of the most oft-repeated and misunderstood bits of writing advice out there.
What does “raising the stakes” literally mean? And how does one go about raising said stakes? What kind of stakes are we even talking about raising, tentpoles or poker?
I’m here to make this as simple for you as possible.
Ask yourself these two questions
Essentially, what’s at “stake” in a novel is a shorthand for what’s important. Your reader wants to feel like they didn’t just spend $15 on a novel where nothing meaningful happens.
It is in your best interest to raise the stakes so the reader feels like they’re reading something where the things that are happening matter.
The best way to think of the “stakes” more specifically is in terms of rewards and consequences. If the character succeeds, they get something great. If they don’t, something terrible is going to happen.
Thus, the very simple key is to ask yourself these two questions:
- What does my character think will happen if they succeed?
- What does my character fear will happen if they fail?
That’s it! That’s all you need to know!
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. That’s because…
Your characters have to want something
So often I read novels by aspiring authors where things happen to characters and we see them bouncing around in sometimes exciting and chaotic fashion, but they don’t want anything in particular.
This is a problem. That’s because your reader is going to be inclined to want what your protagonist wants and will root for them to get that. If your protagonist doesn’t really want anything in particular, why should your reader care?
And this isn’t just true for your protagonist. Nearly everyone in your novel should want something. Oftentimes those things different characters want are at odds, which is where conflict in a novel comes from.
So for every major character in your novel, you should know three things both on a macro level and in every scene:
- The things the character wants
- What they think will happen if they succeed
- What they fear will happen if they fail
And don’t forget this: Your reader needs to know these things too.
The motivations and fears can sometimes be implied or hinted at instead of explicitly stated, but if your reader doesn’t have a sense of what the important characters want and what they are risking to get it, you have a problem on your hands.
Tailoring the stakes to your novel
Now, what constitutes “success” and “failure” for your characters will vary greatly by novel and by genre.
In science fiction and fantasy, the character might be trying to save the world and thus failure may mean millions of people dying. In literary fiction or memoir, the character might be trying to navigate a relationship or find personal fulfillment. In mysteries, it may literally be a matter of life and death.
But regardless of the scale of the canvas of your novel, whether it’s billions of people’s lives or just one relationship, you have to find a way to make it personally matter for that character.
It’s not enough to be satisfied that your character was, in fact, the person who saved the millions of denizens of Muenster Forest from the Cheese Monster. What does it mean to your character personally?
How to raise the stakes
If you want to raise the stakes, it’s all about connecting the rewards and risks to the things your character truly cares about.
Luke Skywalker doesn’t just want to save the galaxy, he also wants to save his friends while thumbing his nose at his father when he proposes they go into business together.
Harry Potter isn’t just trying to escape Voldemort and ruin every day of Snape’s life, he’s also trying to find a connection to his deceased parents.
In novels where it feels like there’s a lot at stake, it’s not just about trying to save kingdoms or rescuing princesses from Death Star cell blocks. The characters’ quests are bound up in their identities as human beings. Or, uh, as cheese monsters. Anyway. They matter in the broader world as well as to that character as an individual.
So if you want to raise the stakes, think of it in these two ways:
- How can I broaden the canvas so my character’s potential success or failure has a greater impact on the world of my novel?
- How can I increase the amount that success or failure matters personally to my character?
In other words, the two ways to raise the stakes involve personal and external motivators.
Ideas for raising the stakes
So how do you ratchet up those stakes? Again, think of it in terms of personal and external motivators that increase a character’s potential rewards and consequences. When you increase the degree of difficulty and give the character more reason to care, things will feel more precarious and tense.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Connect what’s happening to a character’s identity. If we see a character’s hopes and dreams, we see what the character truly values and feels invested in. If you put those values at risk, the character will probably fight hard to stay true to themselves.
- Show who else is depending on the character. If you humanize the other characters who are affected by the protagonist’s actions and show their own personal consequences, it increases the pressure on the protagonist.
- Sharpen the cost of failure. If nothing of consequence happens if the protagonist fails, it will seem like the events don’t matter particularly much. If you increase the potential consequences the stakes will feel higher.
- Boost the reward. A bigger and more life-changing carrot will heighten a character’s personal investment. Even better if it’s tied to the things the character truly cares about.
- Increase the physical danger. Danger is a very easy and surefire way to raise the stakes, particularly when we see the exact outcome the character fears. Don’t let up the tension once it’s there.
- Create a deadline. Whether it’s a literal ticking time bomb or just a looming deadline, a time crunch will increase the pressure.
- Make the character’s’s enemies stronger and smarter. If you make it a fair fight when the protagonist confronts the villain (whether that’s an internal or external villain), it will heighten the sense of potential failure.
- Broaden the canvas. Think about how you can connect the events of the novel to bigger and more consequential outcomes in the setting.
Make the reader care
At the end of the day, raising the stakes = giving a character more reasons to care. And if your character cares more, so will your reader.
There you have it.
Oh, and I still have no idea whether the actual origin of “raise the stakes” refers to tentpoles (moving) or poker (raising the bet). Does anyone out there know?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: November 28, 2018
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Linda S Clare says
I’m a fan of your blog and next year my seventh published book comes out. I’ve taught/coached writers at a community college for about twenty years, and I do a weekly blog on writing too. All this to say I find your advice on “raising the stakes” very important and well said. I teach students that if they think of their story stakes as concentric circles, with the innermost the character and outermost the world/universe, it’s easier to see how raising the stakes in an inner or outer way will raise stakes and make the story feel “bigger” or of more consequence. If the character wants to locate deceased parents, the story gets much bigger if the goal/consequences of failure influence the character, her relationships, his community, country and so on. The more of these concentric circles the writer ties together in the protagonist, the more readers will be liable to care and see the larger nature of the quest for the goal. Thanks so much for your wonderful advice. Your query letter formula is also fantastic for helping writers figure out what the story is about.
Nathan Bransford says
That’s a great way of thinking about it, thanks!
JOHN T. SHEA says
Never play cards with dogs. They cheat!
And forget about the millions of denizens in the Monster Forest. They KNEW the Cheese Muenster was in there. I say LET him eat them all!
But seriously, Nathan, thanks for this. I’m intrigued by how stakes can vary over the course of a story. Both Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are also motivated by curiosity, which proverbially killed the cat, so sheer survival, of both their friends and selves, soon becomes a key issue. Adventure, information, identity, family, friendship, and accomplishment all almost inevitably become factors in such stories.
Anneliese Schultz says
Good reminder – somehow I have to hear about ‘the stakes’ over & over in order to make sure they’re high enough in all my stories & novels.
‘Raising’ those stakes is definitely from poker. Moving would be ‘pulling up stakes’, yes?
Sorry to be contrary, but I’d love to read a story with no stakes and little conflict, but no one is doing it. Probably because it doesn’t seem to reflect the human world. A story of wish-fulfillment that was fun, surprising, lightly humorous, breath-takingly beautiful, with amazing characters and which also had new ideas or concepts to experience that would explain the unusual circumstances would be the penultimate. Of course, stories that have conflict and a main character overcoming obstacles to achieve a goal is always exciting and inspires us to believe we can do the same.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Wendy, novels with little conflict, stakes, or even action are popular in east Asian countries, though I don’t have an example to hand. Subtlety and nuance are valued by their readers. Not my cup of tea, I must say, but each to his own. I prefer mayhem!
Glynis Jolly says
“Oh, and I still have no idea whether the actual origin of “raise the stakes” refers to tentpoles (moving) or poker (raising the bet). Does anyone out there know?”
I would say that “raising the bet” makes more sense, at least to me. Raising tent poles weakens the temporary structure.
You always have just the right reminders. It feels harder when writing more character based stories sometimes. The thing at stake can feel less defined and tangible. Like, what’s at stake for Holden Caulfield? (I know there is an answer, but it seems like a reasonable example). Can someone breakdown Ladybird for me this way? Because Ladybird is my sensibilities. Meandering, maudlin, sentimental, achey, goofy, heartbreaking, slice of life, coming of age, mini journeys. She wants to escape. She wants to have amazing experiences. What’s at stake? What’s the main thing against her? Why is this all so hard? (sorry I’m rambling. hitting a nerve, I guess)
Nathan Bransford says
I think if you think about what Ladybird wants and her identity being bound up in individualism, does that help? It sets up the central conflict between her and her mom. Her mom wants her to be “normal,” Ladybird wants to be extraordinary. And for both of them, it’s bound up in a lot more than just school stuff, she’s built her whole identity around that. I think Gerwig does a good job of showing the lengths to which she’s gone to invest in her individualism and how bound up it is with her identity.
This is how character based dramas get so compelling, they are much more bound up in issues of identity and personal meaning. (Although good genre stories have that too).
Does that help?
Yes! Thank you! And I guess I’m more drawn to–and love more–stories that explore these circumstances–finding one’s way, meaning, individuality, etc. But when I set out to write these stories I get worried that I’m not “raising the stakes” enough or having enough conflict, but I do see that there is conflict in Ladybird. There is tension. There are barriers. What makes it great–to me–is that there are also plenty of little moments that are about character and life. It’s balance, I suppose. Anyway, back to the writing. Thank you for answering my weirdo question. 🙂
JOHN T. SHEA says
I’d never heard of ‘Ladybird’ which I now see is a movie starring Saoirse Ronan. I think identity and personal meaning probably play some role in many stories and genres, as they do throughout all our lives.
you should watch it!
I think I have an answer to your “raise the stakes” dilemma. First of all, I’m pretty sure we’re talking about s-t-e-a-k-s, not s-t-a-k-e-s. It refers to a problem that occurs when you find yourself grilling on your front lawn or driveway. More often than not, you’ll be attacked by a roving pack of semi-feral dogs. At least in my neighborhood, this is the case.
The best thing to do is grab any meat gobbets off the fire and throw them onto the roof to be retrieved later by a daughter, son, or trusted niece/nephew. Therefore, when faced with conflict you “raise the steaks.” This should give your spouse time enough to squirt the dogs with the water hose.
Obviously, I’ve made all this up and wasted my time and, more importantly, yours. But seriously, this is a great blog. Thanks for sharing the awesome advice!
JOHN T. SHEA says
And, of course, the steaks may continue to grill on the hot roof if it’s summer! Particularly if the roof is tin, though then there is some danger the steaks might get eaten by a passing cat who’s read too much Tennessee Williams…
Sheri Grimes says
I did some googling on the “raise the stakes” idiom and it looks like most references indicate the origin as relating to betting, as in poker. The meaning has been adopted to any situation that is requiring increasing the cost, risk or considerations in taking an action. I couldn’t find information on when it was first used though.
To add from Online Etymology Dictionary:
“that which is placed at hazard as a wager, the sum of money or other valuable consideration which is deposited as a pledge or wager to be lost or won according to the issue of a contest or contingency,” 1530s, perhaps from stake (v.2), which is attested a few years earlier, but both the noun and verb are of uncertain origin. Perhaps literally “that which is fixed or put up,” either from a particular use of stake (n.1) “stake, pole,” or from the notion of “a post on which a gambling wager was placed” (but OED points out there is “no evidence of the existence of such a custom”). Weekley suggests “there is a tinge of the burning or baiting metaphor” in this usage.
Meaning “the prize in a contest of strength, skill, speed, etc.” is by 1620s; plural stakes, “sum of money to be won in a (horse) race,” is recorded by 1690s (compare sweepstakes). Meaning “an interest, something to gain or lose” is by 1580s; hence have a stake in “have an interest in the turn of events, have something to gain or lose” (1784). The phrase at stake “state of being laid or pledged as a wager; state of being at hazard or in peril” is from c. 1600.
Note this doesn’t include the “raise the stakes” phrase, but since poker dates from 1830 or so, it’s likely raise the stakes initially applied to another way to lose money.