Raising the Stakes

I recently read the book Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. In it, Maass discusses a number of techniques that will make a novel more compelling, more memorable, and more likely to achieve higher levels of success. One of those techniques is raising the stakes: making sure that there is a lot at risk in your story and that the end results of the characters’ actions really matter in a way that has consequences and repercussions.

So how do you raise the stakes in your story? One of the first things you can do is to give your characters well-rounded lives, goals, and things to lose. A soldier is interesting. A soldier who comes from a long line of military tradition and a father who has high expectations of him is even more interesting. So is one with a child about to be born back home, a civilian job to return to, and aspirations for the future after being discharged. The more of these elements there are in a character’s life, the more reason the reader has to care whether or not this soldier survives the war.

There is also a difference between that character’s personal stakes, and the grander stakes for the rest of the world (such as who will win the war).

Maass suggests asking yourself, “How can this matter more?” and “How could things get worse?” He also says you should make your characters suffer.

Most writers I know rather enjoy making characters suffer. Most of my own stories make my characters suffer quite a bit as well. After all, the higher you raise the stakes, the further there is to fall. In a romance story, the high stakes come from the question of whether the main character’s relationship will succeed or fail. You can raise those stakes even higher with harsher consequences. What if, instead of just being worried that the main character and their love interest will break up, there is suddenly the risk of the love interest dying? Or the characters having to sacrifice their jobs, their friends, or their families in order to be together? When the characters have more at risk than just each other, the stakes are higher, and the potential suffering if things fall apart is that much worse.

Another fun way to raise the stakes is to add the weight of responsibility to a character’s  heart and mind. This is one of the reasons Doctor Who is such a compelling series. Many of the episodes already have high stakes, where entire worlds are threatened and billions of lives are at stake. But we don’t just watch to see these worlds get saved. We watch because the Doctor is a character with the weight of the entire universe on his shoulders. He feels personally responsible for everything that happens. Not because any of it is his fault. Not because anyone asks him to help. But simply because he’s the Doctor.

This takes the idea of raising the stakes, and instead of expanding those stakes outward, it takes them inward. The consequences your character might face don’t need to be world-shattering battles, epic wars, magical apocalypses, and situations where the fate of the universe is at stake. It can be something as simple as winning a spelling bee, and yet the stakes can still be grand and the consequences disastrous if the character takes the feeling of responsibility deep enough.

You can expand on this type of internal stakes by giving a character a personal code. Someone who refuses to compromise their integrity can be far more interesting than someone who is willing to cheat and take shortcuts. Especially if the character suffers for their choices when they refuse to give in. I discussed this idea on the blog awhile back when talking about character relationships and whether we should follow them to the end of their lives. Sometimes, stories that end in death can be the most compelling ones, and that death can resonate even stronger when it’s something the character brings upon themselves for a greater cause.

Imagine a politician who refuses to give in to bribery, even though it means she loses the election. Or a sports player who refuses to use performance enhancers, and has to deal with coming in second because they wouldn’t compromise. Or a soldier who values life so much that they refuse to kill anyone, even when defending the innocent. A struggle can reach new heights of tension and danger when a character’s own morals hamper them, and they know their path would be easier if they just did what they have to do. Or, take a character like Jack Bauer, who does do whatever it takes, but ends up losing everything, including his freedom, as a result of his actions.

Writing these kinds of characters can be difficult. But maybe, the harder it is for you to write, the harder it will be for the characters to win, and that means the stakes are high. Keep raising them, and make sure that your story is the most compelling that it can be.

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