From the Editing Files: What are story stakes and how do I make sure my book has them?
Updated: Jul 18
New series alert!
This is the start of “From the Editing Files,” a series where I talk about some of the topics that come up in my Editorial Evaluations for authors.
(What’s an Editorial Evaluation, you ask? It’s my most popular editing service! Click here to find out more.)
We’re starting the series off talking about stakes, so let’s get into it!
You might have seen the word “stakes” flying around the writerverse. You’ll find it in craft books, articles, and even YouTube videos. Maybe you’ve even heard me talk about stakes before. (I definitely mention them in my draft-by-draft novel revision guide. Don’t have your copy yet? You can get it here!)
But what exactly are stakes, why are they important in your novel, and how can you make sure to use them effectively in your book?
That’s what we’re talking about today!
What are stakes in a story?
In short, stakes are what’s on the line if your character doesn’t succeed.
In fantasy and science fiction, the stakes often involve the world ending or being taken over by some kind of evil force. (Think about what would have happened if Frodo & co. had not been able to destroy the One Ring.)
But stakes don’t have to be that dire. Sure, the end of the world could be what’s on the line, or it could be something as lighthearted as your character not getting to eat ice cream today. The size of the stakes depends on the tone and scope of the story.
Likewise, stakes can either be overarching, involving the entire world, or they can just be personal. Maybe the world will end, or maybe your character will be rejected by their crush. In one case, the whole world cares; in the other, just one person cares.
Why are stakes important?
Stakes are what make readers care about the outcome of the story. It’s one piece out of many that keeps readers reading along to the end!
How to use stakes effectively in your novel.
When I work with authors on their books, a lot of times the issue is not with the stakes themselves. I’ve found that authors are really great at coming up with worst-case scenarios to send their poor characters through!
Instead, it’s often the presentation or the execution of the stakes that needs a little spiffing up. Here’s how you can do that for your novel:
First, be clear on what your stakes actually are.
Ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen if my character fails in their mission/goal? Will the Big Bad take over the planet? Will your character die? Will they not be home in time for supper?
Ask this question both for your entire story as a whole and for each individual scene. Every single scene has stakes, even if they’re low ones like failing a math test or looking silly in front of a crush.
Once you know what’s at stake, think about what that means.
The fact is, the end of a fantasy world is not going to mean that much to your readers. It doesn’t have much impact on the face of it. After all, your readers don’t know the story world yet and aren’t all that attached to it.
You have to make it mean something to your characters, so that your readers can empathize.
So ask yourself: What do the stakes mean to the characters?
If the world ends, do they lose their loved ones? Their home? Their chance to prove themselves as someone worthy of love? …Or the tacos they were planning to eat for dinner?
What the stakes mean will vary depending on the tone of your story and the personalities of your characters. A more humorous book or scene will put more emphasis on lighter, sillier meanings and impacts, while a more serious book or scene will put emphasis on the heavier meanings and impacts.
Next, make sure the reader understands what the stakes are and what that means.
This is probably the place I most often see authors get tripped up. Usually, it’s quite obvious to the writer what the stakes are, but it might not always be that obvious to the readers.
Of course, you don’t have to write something blatant like, “If she failed, the entire world would fall to ruin.” (Although that is an option!)
You can also choose to go subtler, like having your character go through a miniature version of the bad outcome. For example, maybe in a story where a character is trying to rescue his sister from kidnappers, you have the character try and fail to rescue something or someone less important to him, like a stranger or animal, and show the emotional impact of that smaller failure.
You can also go with the classic doom-and-gloom premonition or the disaster simulation or the dark prophesy. All of these devices work well to make the stakes clear!
Finally, make sure to vary the intensity of the stakes in individual scenes.
Not every scene needs to be life-or-death. In fact, too many high-stakes scenes in a row can tire your reader out! Let them stop for breath for a moment and worry about whether or not the love interests are going to kiss instead of saving the world. At least for now…muahahahaha!
Similarly, if you are writing a generally lower-stakes, cozier novel, you’ll want to up the stakes occasionally. They don’t have to be life-or-death (especially in a cozy), but they should create some kind of movement, so that the story doesn’t stay stuck on one note.
I hope this helped you understand story stakes better and that it’ll be useful for your next round of revisions!
And if you find yourself feeling stuck with your novel (whether it’s a stakes problem or something else entirely), I can help! My Editorial Evaluation service combs through every aspect of your novel to find what’s working and what still needs more working on. Stakes are one of the many things it covers, including character arcs, pacing, worldbuilding and more! Get more info here, or send me an email to get your book on my calendar!