Raising the Stakes: The Fuel that Propels Compelling Fiction

By Mike Klaassen

By Mike Klaassen

In fiction writing, stakes are as vital as a heartbeat to a living creature. It’s the element that keeps readers turning pages, hearts pounding in anticipation of what’s next. But what exactly are stakes, and how can writers effectively wield them to captivate their audience?

At its core, stakes in fiction refer to what the protagonist stands to lose or gain in pursuing his or her goal. They’re the consequences, the risks, and the rewards that drive the plot forward. High stakes don’t necessarily mean life or death scenarios; they can be deeply personal and emotional, resonating with the core desires and fears of the characters.

To craft riveting stories, keep the following in mind.

  1. Identifying the Stakes: As early as you can in the story-writing process, identify what’s at stake for your characters. Is it life, love, sanity, or something else? The more your character cares about the outcome, the more your readers will too. In romance, it could be the fear of losing a soulmate, while in a thriller, it might be the dread of a looming catastrophe. Understanding what your character values most is critical to determining the stakes within the plot.
  2. Making Stakes Personal and Relatable: Stakes should be deeply personal to your characters. This emotional connection makes the story relatable to the reader. For example, a protagonist’s struggle to save a family business might echo the reader’s fears of financial insecurity or failure. Personal stakes create emotional investment, which is crucial for reader engagement.
  3. Escalating the Stakes: As your story progresses, so should the stakes. Escalation keeps the plot dynamic and prevents it from becoming stagnant. That doesn’t necessarily mean continuously adding more danger but deepening the personal consequences and challenges your character faces. A mystery novel, for instance, might start with a small personal crime and escalate to a threat against the wider community.
  4. Clarity and Consequences: Stakes must be clear to the reader. If readers are unable to understand the stakes involved, they may not be interested in the outcome. Additionally, readers become invested in the character’s success or dread failure.
  5. Resolving Stakes: Finally, the resolution of stakes is as crucial as their introduction. The payoff, whether positive or negative, should feel earned and satisfying. It should reflect the journey and growth of the character, providing a sense of closure to the reader.

Stakes are the driving force of any compelling story. They create tension, build suspense, and foster emotional investment. By understanding and skillfully manipulating stakes, writers can craft stories that entertain and resonate deeply with their readers. The heart of a good story beats with the rhythm of its stakes.