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Monday, May 31, 2021

6 Tricks to Layer on Stakes

Every great story has stakes--things that are at risk throughout the plot. It might be that the protagonist's life is at risk, or perhaps a romantic relationship, or maybe the opportunity to go on a long-awaited trip. Years ago, I had a hard time understanding stakes, and I think it was in part because they were often defined vaguely. Everything clicked when I realized that they are really potential consequences, which is how I prefer to define them now. 

Stakes are significant events that could happen, and they include a sense of cause and effect. Typically, you can fit stakes into an "if . . . then . . . " statement (even if it's not literally written as one in the text):

"If I don't defeat [the antagonist], then he'll hurt my family."
"If you become a vampire, then the only thing you'll love is blood."
"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, then dehydration will kill us."

Great stakes are closely related to tension, suspense, and hooks. All three get the audience to look forward and anticipate what could happen, usually by getting the audience to hope or fear a potential consequence. The audience then has to keep reading to discover the actual outcome.

All easier said than done. For many writers, stakes can be difficult to get on the page specifically because they require the writer to brainstorm possible, future outcomes--some of which may not actually happen.

For example, say your characters are stranded in a desert. They decide if they don't keep moving, they could die of dehydration. But perhaps, in reality, it turns out if they had stayed put, they would have been rescued. Stakes aren't always about what actually happens. Remember, they are about risk.

In a page-turner of a story, you'll want to brainstorm and put in much more stakes, or potential consequences, in the text than what actually happens. For some of us, it's hard to brainstorm enough of those, so here are some tricks.

1. Look at both positive and negative potential consequences.

When it comes to stakes, we often focus on the negative . . . because that is what is at risk.

"If [the protagonist] doesn't defeat [the antagonist], [the antagonist] will take over the world."

But putting positive outcomes on the page can sometimes be just as effective.

"If Samantha can nail this audition, then she can finally star in a movie."

In this example, a positive potential consequence is what is at risk. Sure, we could change it to a negative--if she doesn't nail the audition, she can't star in a movie.

But the exercise of looking at both positive and negative potential consequences can help you brainstorm new ones. After all, if we were only looking at the negative, we may not have come up with "starring in a movie."

2. Add to the cause-and-effect trajectory

Once you have one stake on the page, you can often add more to it, by taking the cause-and-effect trajectory out further. Suzanne Collins does this well in the opening of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.

If the protagonist can’t eat cabbage soup, then he can’t get his stomach to stop growling (consequence #1), which means people will realize he’s poor, not rich (consequence #2), which means his reputation will be ruined (consequence #3), which means he’ll lose his opportunity to be a mentor through his school program (consequence #4), which means he’ll unlikely be able to meet the credentials needed for college (consequence #5), which means his family won’t be taken care of (consequence #6), which means his cousin might have to succumb to prostitution (consequence #7).

Whew, that's a lot that hinges on making cabbage soup. Suddenly finding out whether or not the cabbage soup is going to work feels way more important!

You don't have to take it out that far, but hopefully you get the idea.

3. Consider broad potential consequences

Another helpful approach is to look at how a potential consequence can have broader ramifications.

This works even with personal matters.

"If Jasper doesn't return Emily's love with a proposal, her descendants may be doomed to live in poverty."

Here, something personal, love, has been broadened to include a family line--all of Emily's children.

"If George doesn't get to water, he could die of dehydration, which means his evil uncle could take the throne."

In this example, the protagonist's possible death affects a whole kingdom.

4. Consider personal potential consequences

A reverse of the previous is to look at ways to make potential outcomes more personal.

"If I don't defeat the antagonist, he'll take over the world--my mom, dad, Frankie, my entire hometown won't survive."

Here we move from a broad problem to a personal risk.

5. Pull in other cause-and-effect trajectories

In most stories, there are multiple cause-and-effect trajectories at work--this is what makes up the plot. There might be a primary plot, a secondary plot, tertiary plot, etc. There might be cause-and-effect trajectories that only last for several chapters or less.

One way to brainstorm more stakes, is to try to connect the current situation to an indirect stake.

For example, say in one plotline, the protagonist is concerned about training her dog. In another plotline, she's concerned about getting her love interest to take notice of her. They may seem pretty unrelated, but you can look for ways to make them connect. If she can't get her dog trained, then Fido might decide to try to chase after the love interest's car--earning her the wrong kind of attention.

6. Look at perceived threats

Sometimes a perceived risk can also work well. Meaning, the character thinks something is at risk, when it actually isn't. Multiple times in the Harry Potter series, Harry is at risk of being killed or expelled, but since we know there are more books in the series, we can surmise that he won't be . . . at least not until near the end, probably. 

Or perhaps you are writing about a child who thinks if she lies to her teacher, she'll go to jail. This is obviously not true, but to her, it's a possibility. 

When perceived threats are written well, it can often feel as if they are real, even when the audience knows they aren't. This can be effective to layer on (and is better than nothing), but needs to be mixed up with the others, as its often not as powerful.

With these six approaches, you should be armed to brainstorm more, significant stakes. To learn more about stakes, you can read my other article on them here: How to Write Stakes in Storytelling.


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