What happens if your character fails?
Stakes are the consequences your character faces. The can be broad-evil takes over the world or personal-never finds love. All stories need stakes. Without them, readers won’t care if your character wins.
What’s your motivation?
Characters can have multiple motivations throughout a story and even in a given scene. They fall into two categories.
- External- Character must change something in the environment
- Internal- Character must change something about himself
External stakes are things like saving the world, rescuing the princess, or stopping the Joker. Here the hero has a specific quest, and his failure will affect his external environment and the people in it. These are the essence of plot-driven stories. Thrillers are an example of plot-driven stories.
Internal stakes are things like finding love, belonging to a group, moving through a tragedy. These the hero must change something about his personality in order to reach his goal. This is the essence of a character-driven story. Romances are an example of character-driven stories.
Most stories have a blend of both. In the Lego Batman movie, Batman had the external stakes of defeating the Joker, but also the internal stakes of learning to trust others.
Stakes must be carefully crafted to the character
Just tossing random obstacles into the pot doesn’t work. Likewise, making everything the end of the world won’t guarantee a reader will care about your character.
Effective stakes must
the consequences of the character’s failure must happen directly after the failure. Just like telling teens sunbathing will give them wrinkles at forty doesn’t really work as a deterrent, telling your readers that the world will end twenty years after Sauron gets his ring back isn’t going to work for your readers. You need a ticking clock. A dark army marching toward the city, a 36 hour limit on a ransom note, or a limited amount of gas in a hijacked plane. There should be no delay between the zero on the clock and the KaBoom.
the end of the world doesn’t always mean high stakes. Threaten what the hero holds dear. Children forced to fight to the death for entertainment? meh, The MC’s little sister is chosen (now it matters) Stakes don’t have to be life and death, by making it personal your reader will be able to connect.
Ex. Your heroine has the solo in the class play. (meh) Grandmother (famous singer) comes to watch despite being estranged from the mother (better). Heroine sings the song her grandmother and mother sang on Broadway in an effort to heal the rift between them. (Now it matters.) Sure it’s the plot for an ABC family movie, but it shows how something simple can become more meaningful by making the stakes personal.
Be balanced to the task
Your MC needs to work for their reward. I read a book once where the love interest had been kidnapped. The rescue (no lie) took three pages. Something that should have been a major plot point became nothing more than a minor inconvenience. On the opposite end, if your character has a minor problem, dragging out the solution will only annoy your readers. (Like a YA heroine that never seems to learn her lesson?)
Without stakes, the reader isn’t invested
Stakes are a critical part of your story. Take the time to make sure they have immediate consequence, are personal to your main character, and are in balance with the effort to solve them. Stakes are more than just consequences, they are the reason your reader will need to know if your characters succeed.
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