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Monday, June 10, 2019

How to Write Stakes in Storytelling

Hey friends, lately I've been wanting to revisit the concept of stakes, as I've been trying to think of new ways to explain it to writers (and to understand it better myself). I'll be honest, back in the beginning, it was kind of hard for me to wrap my head around "stakes." Something about the term itself felt elusive, then when I started to get it, it felt too restrictive creatively.

What do I mean by stakes? And why are they important?

Stakes are essentially what is at risk in the story.

But still, for newer writers, I think that definition leaves them wanting.

Because the concept of "risk" can seem vague as well. Or the risk seems so obvious, that the writer never states it in the text.

Writer: Well, obviously the protagonist's life is at risk! THAT'S THE RISK!! Why do you keep asking me for the stakes???

Lately I've found it more helpful to think of stakes like this.

Stakes = Potential Consequences
Consequences. That's a word that is creeping into my mind more and more as an editor and a writer.

State potential consequences in the text.

Remember how I have been talking on and off for months about how audiences want to look forward in the story? And that tension and hooks work by getting the audience to look forward? Readers keep turning pages, because we've gotten them consider what could happen. Now they need to find out if it does happen.

It's not just about the consequences.

It's about the potential consequences.

Often in the industry you'll hear people say "Raise the stakes!"

But what does that mean?

It means raising/growing/increasing/amplifying what is at risk.

It means strengthening, deepening, broadening potential consequences.

And the audience wants and needs those potential consequences in the text, either stated directly or implied powerfully.

If you took English classes in college, you may have had your professor talk about the "So what?" question when it came to writing essays. Maybe you were writing an essay about animal rights in factory farming. Well, so what? Why do we care about that? Or maybe you were writing an essay about how eating dinner as a family has a positive impact on children. Well, so what? Maybe you were writing an essay that compared Dr. Faustus to Dr. Jekyll. Well, so what? Why do we care?

Stories where the stakes (aka, potential consequences) don't make it onto the page may result in similar responses from others.

So what?

Why do we care?

Why do I care what happens to this character?

Make me care!

How do we fix that?

I've been thinking about how one of the keys to fixing this is making sure the potential consequences, the stakes, are on the page.

You can take this back to my essay examples. When we include the potential consequences in our essays, we answer the "So what?" question. What are the consequences of factory farming on animals and humans? What are the potential consequences of eating dinner as a family? What are the consequences of Dr. Faustus and Dr. Jekyll and what conclusions can we draw from their stories?

When we talk about potential consequences, we talk about what is at risk and why we should care.

Say in the beginning of your story, your protagonist is given the task of delivering an invitation for a royal wedding to her Aunt Sadie.

Well, so what?

Why do we care?

It's your job as a writer to convey the potential consequences that will satisfy those reactions.

Consider this.

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come between the royal family and the protagonist's, resulting in financial and familial devastation (let's say the set up explains why this is so).

Okay, so now I'm starting to care about the wedding invitation--and whether or not Aunt Sadie gets it.

We now have financial and familial wellbeing at risk, or in other words, at stake.

But this also works in the opposite direction, which it seems like everyone in the industry forgets to talk about.

Consider the positive potential consequences as well.

If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then she can go to the wedding, where she hopes to network with someone of high prestige in order to start her new business, a bakery chain, that our protagonist is dreaming and dying to work in--baking is her passion.

Okay, now I'm caring about the invitation even more. Because whatever happens to it will either bring really good consequences or really bad consequences. Not only are family and finances at risk, but the protagonist's dream is affected as well.

To take it even a step further, you can sometimes add potential consequences to potential consequences.

If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt get the bakery going within the year, then she'll be doomed to work for her father as a stenographer, which she'd hate.


Already I'm caring about whether or not this invitation gets delivered, and I just made this all up in a few minutes.

I care because of what's at risk, what's at stake, what could happen.

Now as we get the story going, we throw in some obstacles that get in the way of our protagonist delivering the invitation. What if someone recognizes what it is and tries to steal it so they can get into the wedding?  What if our protagonist accidentally loses it on the way to her aunt's house? What if a downpour of rain ruins it?

Suddenly something as simplistic as a piece of paper is riveting.

But imagine that same scenario, without getting the potential consequences. Who cares about delivering a wedding invitation, really? How much does it matter for the aunt to get it? Or for the protagonist to deliver it? So what? We don't care.

We need the potential consequences in order to get invested in the story.

But it's important to know that not all consequences are equal. Sometimes writers include potential consequences, but they fall flat. This is because the consequences aren't significant.

Another elusive term that I'm working to nail down and explain.

What makes something "significant"?

1 - It has important personal consequences, or
2 - It has far-reaching, broad consequences

You could start a story about your heroine delivering a royal wedding invitation to her aunt, and you could mention the fact it's a downpour outside, and if she's not careful, the rain will ruin the invitation (a potential consequence).

But if that's the only potential consequence you give us, guess what? Who cares? It's not personal. And it's not far-reaching.

Therefore, it is not, significant.

Why should we care if the invitation gets wet and ruined?

But if we put in the story significant potential consequences, it has a different effect. If the invitation doesn't get properly delivered, then

1 - the protagonist may not be able to live her dream helping her aunt in a bakery and will instead be stuck with a job she hates (personal), and
2 - it will cause financial and familial devastation (far-reaching and broad).

The potential consequences need to be significant.

If you look closely at all my consequence sentences, you'll notice they follow a pattern.

The "if . . . then . . ." sentence structure:

If Aunt Sadie doesn't receive the royal invitation, then a rift will come . . .
If Aunt Sadie gets the invitation, then our protagonist can pursue her dream.
If our protagonist isn't able to help her aunt, then she'll be doomed to work as a stenographer.

You can just as easily slip in "if . . . then . . ." sentence structures into your story to guarantee that the potential consequences, the stakes, are present in the text.

Unless you overdo it, most readers aren't even going to be consciously aware of them; they'll just feel the effects. 

But sometimes that idea can feel mechanical and creatively restrictive . . . and even annoying.

So it doesn't need to be so blatant. Just make sure you are conveying the IF and the THEN in the text. If you are in deep viewpoint, you can convey those concepts without having to use that sentence structure every time. You just need to convey fears and hopes your character has about what could happen.

Next time you watch a movie, or read a book, watch for IF and THEN lines. Here are some I've picked up on:

"If I don't destroy the collider, then all of Brooklyn will be gone!"
"If Rodrick knows I ratted him out, then he'll never forgive me!"
"If you become a vampire, there is one thing you'll want more than love. Blood."
"If one could locate and destroy all the horcruxes, then one can destroy Voldemort."
"If we don't fight back, then he'll take all our land, our homes, our lives we built."
"If we don't keep moving, this place will be swarming with aliens in a matter of hours."

Get the stakes, the potential consequences in the text.

Sometimes writers fail to do this because they think the stakes are obvious.

But the audience wants them in the text.

It's only annoying to them if you keep repeating the same potential consequences over and over and over and over again.

Reader: I get it!

This can also be missing from the text if the writer is trying too hard to follow the "Show, don't tell" rule religiously. Since stakes are potential consequences, you can't really show them, can you? You have to convey them through telling.

If you don't have any telling in your story, you aren't conveying potential consequences. And you aren't answering the "So what?" question.

Put the potential consequences in the text.

And as a bonus, look for opportunities to address both positive and negative consequences, perhaps even for the same story element.

IF you don't include potential consequences, THEN you will be rejected.

Related Articles:
Look Forward, Not Back, to Pull the Reader In
Tension vs. Conflict
5 Tricks that Help with Hooks
Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Show, don't Tell"


  1. Thank you for this. It really brought clarity to my mind regarding stakes. I appreciate you very much for this.

    1. September C. FawkesJuly 9, 2022 at 5:29 PM

      Hi Yolanda, glad it was helpful! It really helped me when I put these things together.


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