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Monday, September 13, 2021

How Stakes Set up Expectations

Stakes are what is at risk in the story. In the past, I've talked about how I like to think of stakes as potential consequences--what could happen if a certain condition is (or is not) met. For stakes to be most effective, they usually need to be specific and often on the page. They should follow a cause-and-effect trajectory.

All well-thought stakes should be able to fit into "If . . . then . . ." statements. Even if they aren't actually written that way on the page (though they can be).

"If Rodrick knows I ratted him out, then he'll never forgive me!"
"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."

Usually, we want more stakes on the page than what actually comes to pass. And I've talked about different ways of how to brainstorm those.  

When a story has great stakes the reader has to keep reading to find out if what could happen, does happen. 

In other words, to some degree or another, stakes set up the readers' expectations

They may not always be 100% solid expectations, but they set up expectations more or less. 

Because if Suzy accidentally left her campfire going, then I would expect that it could start a forest fire. That is a logical outcome. Depending on how this is rendered in the story and what's happening in the plot, and what I, the reader, have read and seen in other stories before, I may fully expect that to happen next: Suzy's campfire will start a forest fire. 

Now that my expectations are set up, the author can play with them, if he or she desires.

Stakes are what could happen, not necessarily what actually happens (this is a form of tension and related to hooks). Stakes may be even what we fully expect to happen, but still, not necessarily what actually happens.

So as a writer, you have a few options: 

1. The situation leads to the expected problem:

Suzy's campfire does start a forest fire.

2. The situation leads to no problems:

The campfire peacefully burns out, and it rains that night.

3. The situation leads to a problem worse or bigger than expected:

The campfire not only starts a forest fire, but burns up a few homes, and a state park.

4. The situation leads to a surprising outcome:

The campfire attracts an angry bigfoot.

Good writers will take advantage of these different outcomes (whether the writer is fully conscious of doing that or not). 

Be careful of using option two--the situation leads to no problems. If you use that too much, you run the risk of undercutting the tension in your story. This is when the writer cuts threads of tension, so that there is no tension in the story for a period of time, or when the writer repeatedly fails to deliver on promised conflict. It's a little more complicated than I can sum up, but you can learn more about this issue here.

The point is, when you work with stakes, you set up some expectations in the audience. This is a good thing because it helps the audience get invested in the story (unless you are only setting up expectations that are totally predictable). Once they have expectations, you, the writer, can meet them, surprise them, or over-deliver on them. And yes, sometimes, undermine them too (only on occasion, and only when you have plenty of other important forms of stakes and tension in play). It can also be effective to use the character's viewpoint to lead the audience to a specific stake, only to twist it to another outcome.

So think about what your audience is expecting from your story's stakes. And if you are only using one or two of these types of outcomes, try to switch it up to keep your readers surprised.


FanX--Hi everyone! This week I'll be a guest at FanX in Salt Lake City, Utah talking about Spirited Away and Writer's Block. 

20th Anniversary of Spirited Away: How Hayao Miyazaki's Vision Changed the World

6 - 7 PM, Sept. 16th

Defining Your Writer's Block--and Then Conquering It!

7 - 8 PM, Sept. 16th

It should be nice to be at a conference/convention again after Covid! Just wanted to let everyone know in case you are going and want to see my panels!


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