Your hero is out of time.
They stand alone, with one arm limp and bleeding at their side, and the other shielding their eyes from a blinding light — the villain’s final spell. It spills from the sky, like fiery entrails from a pale gut, and plummets toward the earth.
If your hero fails here, everything is lost. The world and all its people are at stake. So your hero grits their teeth and prepares to fight back.
But you, as the writer, notice something odd.
When you share this scene with readers, they don’t seem to care. Or at least, they don’t care as much as they should, considering the narrative stakes are so high. I mean, all of humanity is about to be wiped out, right? So why shouldn’t the readers care?
And the answer is because there’s a lot more to “raising the stakes” than just creating bigger explosions.
Stakes and how to raise them.
“Stakes” are the consequences of failure for your characters, either in a particular scene or the story at large.
For example, maybe your main character’s life is at stake, or their loved ones’ well-being. Maybe their career is on the line, or their relationships, or their emotional health, or their beliefs.
Or maybe the world is going to explode.
Regardless, stakes are vital in every story, because they’re the primary source of tension. And when you want to add more tension? You raise the stakes.
But what does raising the stakes look like? Well, generally, it means adjusting one (or more) of the three key aspects of stakes:
- Physical Impact: The extent to which failure will affect the physical world.
- Emotional Investment: How important a stake is to your character.
- Relatability: How relatable a stake is to the reader’s experiences.
Let’s look at examples of these aspects and how to raise them in three different scenarios.
1. The Boy in the Well
Your character is a man named Abraham who lives in the 1800s. As he passes a farm on horseback, a girl runs up alongside the fence and begs for help: her brother has fallen down the well! Abraham follows her to the well, and down below, in the darkness, the boy whimpers about a twisted ankle. Abraham needs to get him out of there. What’s at stake?
- Physical Impact: Medium. The boy is hurt, but in no immediate danger
- Emotional Investment: Medium. Abraham cares about the boy’s safety, but they share no personal connection.
- Relatability: High. It’s a very realistic situation, and while most communities today don’t have wells, they all definitely have risky areas where kids might play and get hurt.
Now how could we raise these stakes? Well, first, we could raise the physical impact. Instead of the boy just having a twisted ankle, he could be completely unresponsive — which means he might be dying, and time is short (time-sensitive stakes help up the ante). Second, you could raise the emotional investment by making Abraham not a stranger, but a family friend; he’s known this boy since birth, and it would destroy him to see the boy die.
Suddenly the stakes are feeling a lot higher, right? Let’s do another.
2. Landing the Interview
Your character is a woman named Leanna who’s in her last semester of college. She’s struggling to graduate and pay off her credit card debt while working at Burger King — but then she lands an interview at her dream job, for post-graduation. What are the stakes of this interview?
- Physical Impact: Low. She isn’t in any physical danger, but failing to get the job would prevent her from relieving her debt as easily.
- Emotional Investment: Medium. Clearly she wants this job: it’s her dream and it will help her get out of debt.
- Relatability. High. Especially for anyone who has struggled with debt or job hunting.
To raise these stakes, the first thing I’d do is tie the interview to a core emotional struggle. Maybe people have always told Leanna she’d never amount to anything, just like her deadbeat dad, and this job will be her make-or-break moment. That raises her emotional investment.
The next thing I’d consider is raising the physical impact (which also often increases emotional investment): for example, maybe the reason Leanna has debt is because she struggles to pay for insulin and other medical costs as a diabetic. Her health is on the line with this job. (You can accentuate this even more by making it clear that this is the only job opportunity she has on the table. No backup plan = bigger stakes.)
How about one more example?
3. Saving the World
Let’s take the example from the intro — your character is a non-binary hero named Alex. They’re the chosen one, and they’re going toe-to-toe with the villain’s final, fiery attack. The entire world is on the line as Alex steps forward, beaten down, but not to be counted out. What are the stakes?
- Physical Impact: Extremely high. Alex and all the world will die.
- Emotional Investment. High. Alex cares about the world, after all.
- Relatability: Pretty low. It’s difficult to relate to the whole world being destroyed.
The problem here is relatability, so how do you go about making something like the destruction of the world more relatable? Basically, you need to layer on new physical or emotional stakes that are smaller scale and more relatable.
For example, you could focus Alex’s attention on how this will kill their boyfriend, or destroy the town they grew up in, or will keep Alex from making amends with their parents. On top of that, you could make character growth a stake; maybe Alex has never actually thought humanity worth saving, and this final confrontation is their last chance to show readers a change of heart by fighting back.
The other alternative is to lower the physical impact of what’s at stake to something more relatable; but hey, sometimes you just want to watch the world (almost) burn. And that’s okay.
(And occasionally fun.)
Those are your stakes.
Bigger explosions can help raise the stakes — but they’re not the only way. So the next time you’re trying to figure out why your conflict falls flat, remember to look at all three aspects of stakes.
And raise them according to the needs of your story.
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