You’ve come up with an amazing hook for your next novel.
It’s the kind of idea that Hollywood would drool over.
And your protagonist?
She exudes the kind of cool that elicits admiration from male and female readers alike.
Alas, an intriguing hook and a compelling protagonist are not enough to keep readers up all night.
To keep readers enthralled, you must pair your hook and protagonist with another storytelling ingredient: the stakes.
What are story stakes and why are they so essential?
Simply put, stakes are the negative consequences of failure. If your protagonist fails, bad things will happen. Unlike an intriguing hook or compelling protagonist, stakes put readers under tension.
Readers have to know how your protagonist avoids the negative consequences of failure.
The only way to find out—the only way to relieve this tension—is to keep on turning the pages of your novel.
In other words, stakes are one of the best ways to create reader “glue.”
When used well, they can convert readers into raving fans who recommend your book to others—netting you a steady stream of sales.
Unfortunately, despite their importance, stakes are often overlooked by authors.
But not you.
Not after you read this article that’ll help you choose the best stakes for your novel. Ready to dive in? Let’s go!
Choosing Story Stakes for Thrillers
With regard to story stakes, the go-to option for thrillers is often some variation of saving the world.
For example, the villain has got hold of a nuclear device. If the protagonist doesn’t stop the bad guy in time, millions of people will die.
When used to best effect, these stakes are excellent at heightening the tension. Even so, for the sake of variety, it’s worthwhile to explore other options. Here’s one I recommend you try: stakes of access.
As a consequence of failure, the protagonist will lose access to a place or person that he greatly values. In a variation of these stakes, the protagonist will lose the opportunity to regainaccess to something that he values.
For example, say your protagonist is a female spy who botched up her last mission so bad that she’s been exiled from an elite unit within her organization. However, she’s been offered a second chance.
If she succeeds in this mission—to find a missing report, scientist, etc.—she’ll be welcomed back into the fold. This is especially meaningful to her because her unit is the only family she has.
Because readers are aligned with the protagonist, they are going to care the most about the stakes that personally affect her. That’s why stakes of access carry significant emotional weight—more so, I’d argue, than even when millions of lives hang in the balance.
Choosing Story Stakes for Science-Fiction and Fantasy
Here once again, the story stakes often involve some variation of saving the world (perhaps entire galaxies).
However, because your genre enables you to twist the rules of reality—either through extreme application of science or through magic—you’ve got an additional option to make use of: stakes of sanity.
This is when the protagonist’s failure will trigger some kind of alteration to his consciousness. Perhaps, if he fails, he’ll lose all of his memories. Perhaps, if he succeeds, his memory will be restored.
For example, in the film Minority Report, stakes of sanity and stakes of freedom are coupled together to form Anderton’s potential punishment. If he doesn’t clear his name in time, he’ll not only be imprisoned, all his memories will be wiped.
A chilling prospect.
The kind, that if employed in a novel, would make it impossible for readers to walk away from your story.
Choosing Story Stakes for Murder Mysteries
In a murder mystery(whether cozy or otherwise), the stakes typically revolve around justice. If the protagonist identifies and apprehends the killer, a wrong will, to a certain extent, be made right.
To get readers emotionally involved in your sleuth’s quest for justice, focus on how solving the case would affect the victim’s family.
Say the victim is the only son of a wealthy titan. Since his son’s death, the titan’s health has rapidly deteriorated. The sleuth is driven to solve the case to give closure and peace of mind to the titan before the titan dies.
However (as previously mentioned), readers care the most about stakes that personallyaffect the protagonist. Accordingly, to engage readers at a deeper level, you’ll probably have to couple stakes of justice with another set of story stakes.
Going back to our hypothetical murder mystery, the titan’s son could’ve dated the protagonist’s daughter. But the relationship ended badly, and the protagonist’s daughter is the prime suspect.
Now, the protagonist is driven to solve the case not just to achieve justice but also to keep her daughter out of prison.
A much more engaging combination, no?
Choosing Story Stakes for Heists
Here’s the thing about heists: while the acquisition of millions (or whatever the score amounts to) might make your protagonist really happy, it’s usually not enough to make readers happy.
In order to remain emotionally involved in the plot, they need something else.
In other words, the protagonist’s failure should signify something beyond unhappiness at losing out on the millions—if not at the beginning of your novel, then by its end.
Look at Andy Weir’s novel Artemis. According to the cover copy, it’s “a heist story set on the moon.” (Yes, I realize this is a sci-fi heist, but the principles we’re going to discuss apply to all heists, not to sci-fi heists in particular.)
Anyway, from the book description, readers learn that pulling off the heist will enable the protagonist, Jasmine (a.k.a. Jazz), to become “rich enough to pay off a debt she’s owed for a long time.”
That line indicates that if Jazz fails, she’s not going to be unhappy just because she can’t move into a bigger apartment or buy gourmet meals.
The stakes encompass more than that.
I can’t say what exactly because I haven’t read the book. But here’s one possibility: Jazz borrowed money from someone who’s not as physically threatening as a loan shark…but who’s just as controlling. Because of her debt, she’s obligated to do his bidding. When he says jump, she must ask how high.
Thus, succeeding at the heist isn’t just about money. It’s also about being able to live life on her own terms, and free herself from being underneath someone else’s thumb.
With the heist tied to stakes of freedom, the story has an additional emotional layer that’ll make it even more satisfying for readers.
Choosing Story Stakes in a Romance
In some romances, the story stakes only revolve around the hero and heroine’s happiness at finding their perfect partner.
In romances like these, likeability carries greater weight than usual, so make sure that your protagonists don’t engage in behavior that could potentially alienate readers.
In other kinds of romances, however, more than happiness is at stake. Actually, happiness (achieved through the romance) typically battles with another set of stakes.
For instance, although the heroine is deeply attractedto the hero and would like a relationship with him, she can’t act on that attraction. Why not? He’s her rival for a major contract that she needs to land in order to prevent her great-aunt’s home from going into foreclosure.
In short, stakes of happiness are pitted against stakes of access. This scenario (which I like to think of as a war between the stakes) is an excellent way to generate inner conflict in a romance.
Indeed, the whole setup is quite beneficial right up until the end—when your hero and heroine need to get together. (Otherwise, there’d be no happily ever after (HEA), and you’d let down your readers. Big time.)
You can’t just throw out the stakes of access because they’ve suddenly become inconvenient. (I’ve seen this happen more than once!) Instead, you must credibly reconcile them with stakes of happiness.
If you do, your ending won’t feel contrived. Readers, keen to get more HEAs from you, will search for your other novels—netting you an HEA of your very own.
Although we covered a range of story stakes in this article, we just scratched the surface! To learn about additional types of story stakes, download this convenient printable list of 11 types of story stakes.
If you’d like to go further, and learn how to raise the stakes as well as maximize their ability to create reader glue, check out my writing guide Story Stakes: Your #1 Writing Skills Strategy to Produce a Page-Turner That Transforms Readers into Raving Fans of Your Screenplay or Novel.
A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa (a.k.a. HRD) is an author and writing coach who specializes in story structure and story stakes. That wasn’t her initial intention, however. In fact, she almost became a lawyer. Twice.
But then she realized that although she wantedto be a lawyer, she needed to be a writer. So she dedicated herself to studying films, screenplays, and novels in order to understand why some stories were gripping…while others were easy to walk away from.
Ultimately, she shared her discoveries in eight writing guides, including Story Stakes: Your #1 Writing Skills Strategy to Produce a Page-Turner That Transforms Readers into Raving Fans of Your Screenplay or Novel.
For practical, actionable writing tips designed to help you keep readers glued to your pages, visit her website scribemeetsworld.com, which is also home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet(downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world).
Thank you for sharing this – I suspect I knew in the back of my mind about ‘stakes’. But it is good to read its analysis.
I’m so glad my article brought stakes to the forefront for you.
They contribute so much to creating that “can’t put it down” feeling for readers!
This is a wonderful article, and has gotten me re-thinking my stories, and how I’m going to be tackling my new projects from now on.
I need to start thinking about the stakes involved in each story.
Have a nice day.