5 Strategies to Raise the Stakes
All writers want to keep readers turning the pages of their stories from start to finish. We want the readers to be captivated by the protagonist’s struggles and successes. We want them emotionally attached and worried the characters might not get what they want— or that they will get what they want because the consequences of reaching the goal mean a heap of trouble for the protagonist.
Simply put, stakes are something gained or lost in relation to the goal the protagonist is pursuing. What happens if the hero doesn't defeat the villain? Do they (or someone they love) die? Is the world destroyed?
Stakes need to be present throughout the story, and they need to grow and change as the characters grow. They don’t always have to be life or death, but they need to be proportional to the story you’re telling. What happens if Bella chooses Jacob over Edward in the Twilight series? Sure, she’ll have love either way, but each boy represents a completely different future. If the protagonist’s stakes aren’t rising with each turning point, the reader will check out of the story.
So how do you keep your readers fully engaged? Read on for our best tips to continually raise the stakes in your story!
Add a ticking clock
One of the simplest and most effective ways to raise the stakes is to give the protagonist a ticking clock. It doesn’t have to be a bomb—although it can be, especially if you’re writing a suspense novel—but any kind of time pressure or constraint automatically adds stress. A flat tire is ten times worse when you have a plane to catch versus when you’re just heading to the grocery store.
If your story already has a ticking clock, you can still raise the stakes by speeding it up. Let's say your character has three days to complete a treasure hunt in order to deliver the last magical item to a sorceress, or the portal closes forever, trapping their best friend in another dimension. How can you speed up the clock? Maybe around the middle of the story, the protagonist discovers they translated the magical summons wrong—they now have less than a day left rather than the day and a half they were counting on!
Make it personal
Always keep your stakes tied to the protagonist. Whether they’re internal or external stakes (preferably both!), you want them to matter to the protagonist. They’re the reader’s access point to the story.
Stakes play on the reader’s emotions. We want them to be concerned about what’s happening to the protagonist. In Cinder, Cinder risks revealing she is a cyborg in order to save Prince Kai’s life. In The Hunger Games, Katniss protects her sister from certain death, but now must enter the games herself and either become a victim or a killer.
Play on your protagonist’s fears. What’s their worst nightmare? Make them face it. Do they regret a breakup? Have that ex show up and want another chance…right when they’re about to take a job across the country. Don’t forget their flaws. Are they too impulsive? Let that impulsivity force them into a challenging situation.
Combine internal and external stakes
Personal stakes are often tied to personal relationships, and nothing can make even an abstract external threat more real to someone than losing a loved one to it.
Consider the scene in The Hunger Games when Rue is mortally wounded:
Her hand reaches out and I clutch it like a lifeline. As if it's me who's dying instead of Rue.
"You blew up the food?" she whispers.
"Every last bit," I say.
"You have to win," she says.
"I'm going to. Going to win for both of us now," I promise.
Rue’s death in the arena raises the stakes for Katniss in a major way. Externally, Katniss has now lost a valued ally, and with only a few Tributes left, Katniss is now in greater danger than she was when she first entered the arena.
Internally, however, Katniss is now driven by grief and a desire to get revenge on the Capitol for forcing children to fight to the death, whereas earlier in the story, she was motivated purely by survival. For Katniss, winning the Games is now no longer just about her— the stakes have been raised.
Evaluate the consequences of each choice
All actions need to have consequences to keep the story interesting (and moving forward). But are the consequences of each action big enough? Go through your story scene by scene and ask yourself what the character gains or loses as a consequence of their choices.
As you do this, compare each scene to the previous scenes or chapters. Are the stakes rising as the story goes? Or are things going a little too well for your hero?
Returning to our example of The Hunger Games, if the stakes had remained the same after Rue's death, Katniss would have simply needed to stay alive until the end. But thanks to her decision to seek out Peeta, she now has to keep herself and her wounded teammate alive, and more conflict naturally arises from this.
Go back to the choices your characters made in those scenes. Consider how a different choice would add stakes. Remember to keep connecting the stakes to the character.
Save the biggest stakes for the climax
Escalation is the key when it comes to stakes. Just as you save the story’s biggest battle for the climax—whether that’s a physical battle or an emotional battle where the hero needs to overcome their fears in order to win their love interest back—you want the final consequences to be the biggest ones.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss isn't faced with the possibility of killing to survive or defying the Capitol right away. Her stakes once she enters the arena seem almost mundane— she has to find a source of water. But as time goes on and more Tributes are killed, the stakes continue to escalate until she and Peeta are the last two standing.
Whether you plot your novels ahead of time or wait until revision, think about the biggest emotional trial your character will face—the one that nothing else could top. Once you have that, start working backward. What will be at stake leading up to the climax? What is at stake early in the story? Keep going until your entire story has stakes.
Time to raise the stakes!
Remember: stakes add conflict. Conflict keeps the reader engaged. By using one or more of the techniques we’ve listed, you’ll find new and exciting ways to propel your story forward and have your readers on the edge of their seats.