My last appearance on the Fully Booked podcast went so well, hosts Craig Tuch and Roland Hulme invited me back for another chat. This time, we talked about the importance of story stakes. We talked about why the stakes in Jaws and The Hunger Games were so effective, why Jack Reacher will never have a girlfriend, and how you can raise the stakes in your novel, no matter which genre you’re writing.
We touched on a lot of the things you can find in NO HERO WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD. We also went beyond what’s in the book, to discuss some brand-new things!
You can watch Fully Booked on YouTube (look for episode #35). But this is a podcast, so it’s much, much better to listen to it. Here is the direct link to listen online. You can also find it on apple podcasts, Amazon podcasts, and Spotify, or wherever you like to listen.
I know that all stories need to have conflict. That’s what makes a plot, right? My novel has lots of conflict. But my critique partners say my story is “flat,” and “lacks tension.” They keep talking about story stakes, but I don’t really see a difference between conflict and stakes. As long as I have two opposing forces both trying for the same goal, I have stakes, don’t I?
It’s great that you’re thinking deeply about what makes a great story, and I’m glad that your critique group has been helpful to you. You’re correct that a story needs conflict, but it also needs stakes. Think of it this way: stakes are what gives conflict meaning.
If you’ve written a story about two boys racing each other home from school, you’ve written a conflict. After all, only one of them can win the race and be first through the door. The other will lose. Perhaps the winner will have first pick of the snacks or he’ll get to the TV first. The winning boy might taunt the loser, but can’t do much more. This is a contest without stakes. The reader won’t really care.
Story stakes are a way to make your reader care.
Let’s reframe that footrace. Let’s say that these aren’t two random boys, but brothers. Their parents are dead and they’re set to be put into foster care today at three o’clock. They’re going to two different households, although the fostering families don’t really care which boy goes where. They’ll take whichever boy gets into their car first. One of the families is nurturing and kind. The other treats foster children like abused servants.
Boris, the elder brother, is cruel and manipulative, and is determined to get to the good family before his younger brother Lars can. Lars has been living with his brother’s brutality for years. If he can just get home before Boris does today, he’ll go to a nicer place where he’ll never have to deal with his brother’s nastiness again. However, if his elder brother beats him home, Lars will be going to a family that will treat him worse than Boris ever did.
Now the race home from school has stakes. Not only is there a life-changing reward for winning, there are terrible consequences for losing. The odds are also stacked against our hero. Lars is younger than Boris, so he’s smaller and weaker. Boris has put rocks in Lars’s backpack and also slipped out the back door of the school before the final bell to get a head start.
Readers of this second scenario will be rooting for Lars to win. At the same time, the reader will be afraid he’ll lose. Worry about the outcome will make them turn the pages faster. As a writer, that is the way you want your readers—interested, worried, and desperate to learn the outcome. That’s what story stakes can do for your novel.
To give your conflict stakes, first make sure that your hero wants something. He wants it desperately, more than he wants anything else. Spell out the specific reward for achieving that goal. Most importantly, make sure there are terrible consequences for failure. Finally, make sure that this goal isn’t easy to reach. This goal is going to take one hundred percent of your hero’s time, effort, and will to accomplish, and even then, the odds of success are low.
You need to do this work on two levels. There need to be high stakes in the overarching plot of the entire novel. Also, each scene has to have stakes. The hero begins each scene wanting something and uses that scene to try to get it. If you can keep feeding readers those high-stakes scenes, they will follow your story right to the end, so they can find out what happens. And if you resolve the stakes in a satisfying way, readers will close your book feeling happy. And then they will buy your next book.
Keep writing, you’re doing great.
Alex Kourvo is a freelance editor and the author of No Hero Wants to Save the World, a book all about story stakes.