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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Art: A Waterloo by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge