Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 42: When Your Story Stakes Aren’t High Enough

There are two different ways you can blow your story stakes–and both of them have the ability to ruin your book.

Before we dig into the pitfalls, let’s take a moment to consider just what story stakes are.

What Are Story Stakes?

Your character’s stake in your story is his personal investment in the conflict. It’s whatever he stands to lose should the game go south. The stakes are about more than just his losing his story goal should he fail to overcome the antagonistic force. Merely losing whatever it is he’s chasing doesn’t present enough stakes: all that does is leave him in the same place he started, no better or worse.

The story stakes are the ramifications he faces just for playing the game. Simply by entering the conflict, he’s putting serious money on the table. He’s risking something important. If he loses out to the antagonist, not only will he fail to gain his story goal, he’ll be worse off than he was at the story’s beginning.

In short, the story stakes are whatever the character is risking. Usually, the easiest way to identify the stakes is simply to figure out what it is your character cares about most. This could be any number of things, including:

  • Loved ones.
  • Professional pride.
  • Money or possessions.
  • Self-worth.
  • Fate of the free world.

Your story stakes are almost always going to rest upon something found right at the crossroads of the Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs.

Once you’ve figured out your story stakes, your next job is making sure you’re not wasting them by setting them too low–or, worse, abusing them by pretending they’re higher than they actually are.

How to Bore Readers With Low Story Stakes

Whatever story you’ve chosen to tell only deserves to be told if it’s going to be the defining moment in your protagonist’s life. This needs to be the biggest, baddest, most memorable, most paradigm-shifting thing that’s ever going to happen to him (until the sequel, of course). As such, you can’t afford to tell a story in which that character essentially risks nothing. For example:

When Ig-Dwar the alien immigrates to earth from his peaceful society, the protagonist Captain Mac risks KP by going against his superiors’ orders in order to get to know this friendly alien.

What’s at stake in this story? The aliens are super-duper friendly, so there’s no risk of invasion. True enough, brave Captain Mac is bucking orders in order to learn more about his fascinating new friend. But what’s the punishment for his actions? A few lousy hours of potato peeling?

Yawn.

How to Annoy Readers by Pretending Your Story Stakes Are High

Obviously, your alien story is going to need a little sprucing up. So you do a little brainstorming and come up with some easy ways to increase the tension and conflict in this story.

Ig-Dwar arrives in peace to learn about the Earthlings. He and Captain Mac immediately strike up a friendship. But then Captain Mac starts worrying Ig-Dwar is going defect back to his people and betray Earth into their warmongering hands.

Bam! Just like that you’ve upped the story stakes. Now Captain Mac’s actually got some skin in the game. By hanging out with Ig-Dwar and helping him learn about humans, Captain Mac may be advancing interplanetary relations–or he may be speeding Earth on her way to destruction. No matter what he does, it seems there are going to be ramifications.

Except

–Ig-Dwar is totally and obviously loyal. The friendly alien never does anything to initiate or bolster Captain Mac’s fears. In fact, his POV clearly shows he intends nothing but beneficence to his new human friends. Captain Mac, bless his heart, is just being paranoid.

In short, all those lovely story stakes you’ve conjured up for this story are a big, fat lie. Granted, you aren’t intending to lie to your readers. All you’re trying to do is inject a little oomph into your tale of alien-human friendship. But the whole thing is nothing but a facade that readers are going to see right through. Not only will they recognize that there’s still nothing at stake in this story, they’re also likely to start thinking Captain Mac is a neurotic idiot.

Probably not the effect you were trying for.

How to Write Perfectly Poised Story Stakes

If your story is going to live up to its full potential, it’s going to need some real stakes to hammer home the import of its conflict. Let’s try this:

Ig-Dwar the alien arrives and makes contact. Captain Mac immediately connects with the alien, even though his superiors warn him he will be court-martialed if he continues to liaison with Ig-Dwar before the alien’s true motives can be ascertained. Turns out their precautions aren’t so dumb after all. Despite his friendly overtures, Ig-Dwar isn’t quite the innocent he seems to be. He’s really a spy on a top-secret mission to reconnoiter Earth, make friends with the humans–and then betray them to his blood-hungry people. Captain Mac suspects this just as strongly as do his superiors, but he believes the only way to stop Ig-Dwar is to make friends with him and convince him he’s a better “man” than this.

Ahhh, now we’re talking. Now we’ve got a story! So what’s at stake here? Not much, right? Just Captain Mac’s profession, freedom, reputation, and life–and, oh yeah, the fate of the entire world. He’s risking much because he believes it’s the only way to gain much.

Notice anything else? Like how maybe the stakes aren’t the only thing to improve in this new version? The characters themselves have become instantaneously more interesting simply because of the harder choices the nature of the conflict is asking them to make.

Every part of your story is going to be affected by what’s at stake–and how those stakes play out. Whenever your conflict starts flagging or your characters start meandering, the cause may very well be mediocre stakes that need tightening up. Check and double check your story stakes to make certain you’re using them to their greatest advantage. The results will always be startlingly consequential!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What are your story stakes? What is your protagonist risking in his gambit to gain his story goal? Tell me in the comments!

Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 42

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. My current story has the protagonist on the verge of losing his beloved wife and two children, respect of the community, and possibly his job. This is the first time I’ve written this strong of a story and I hope I do it justice. I appreciate your sharing your knowledge and experience – it’s helping me more than you can imagine.

  2. Natasha says:

    My protagonist risks losing his prestige and social image, which, as I have established early in the book, are his most important needs. However, thanks to this post, I managed to strengthen my story stakes, which added more interest into the story, but also revealed to me a hint of his relationship with another character that I’d never have the chance to discover otherwise. Thank you! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Awesome! It’s always exciting when we can figure out ways to tweak our stakes. Sometimes even a little tweak can make all the difference in amping up the whole story.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Yes! You’re right. Whoopsie on my part!

  4. OK, so reading this makes me realize that while I have stakes, they are a bit … removed. My MC’s twin brother has been put under a spell by a witch, but he’s quite a ways off and the MC is trying to get back to where he is and break the spell. She has a confrontation with the witch before the midpoint, which ends with the witch unable to reach the MC at that moment but on her way to do so. The witch has little power outside of her ‘realm’ and has to get the MC back to her realm to do any harm to her; and while she’s gone, she can’t do anything else to the MC’s brother.
    So, how can I up the stakes and have the brother be in actual, recognizable danger even when the witch isn’t around him? It’s not told from his POV, and the MC doesn’t know what has happened to him, only that he is (presumably) alive. The thing that keeps her going is the hope that she can rescue him.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      One easy way is simply to create multiple layers of conflict. While the witch is threatening the brother, perhaps she’s also got her minions after the protagonist. Always be asking yourself: what are the obstacles between your protagonist and both her story goal and her scene goals? Then just up the difficulty level and the ramifications if she fails to overcome those obstacles.

  5. I am in struggling with this. My protagonist is stuck in time…and may never be a able to return to her life and her sister with whom she dearly loves in the future. That should seem like a good enough stake. But she falls in love with a man in the past which, as you pointed out, can be a pretending stake. But to stay and have him she will jeopardize his reputation, his daughter’s future, and hurt a person who loves him and needs him. Is this enough? I am hoping so…..

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds good to me! As long as all the threats are legitimate, you’re totally on the right track. And bonus points for giving her something to lose no matter what she chooses!

  6. There’s another kind of fake conflict. It’s when the hero is fighting to protect his village/kingdom from the Evil Dark Lord… and this village/kingdom is portrayed as a dung-filled hellhole full of annoying crooks. Makes you cheer for the Evil Dark Lord when he burns the place to the ground.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. There’s some truth to that. Although it does raise some interesting questions about why the hero is fighting so hard for it.

      • I think this part from the two towers explains all the doubts :
        Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

        Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?

        Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

  7. A little harder to figure out in a series title…

    But, my protagonists risk losing each other, and if they don’t figure out who their killer is, it could have long term ramifications since they may not be able to stop a government conspiracy to imprison superhumans.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’ve got some nice series-wide stakes going on with the relationship and the politics.

  8. Thanks for the reminder of what’s so important. It took a complete first draft for me to get to know my characters well enough to know what they valued most. Now in its 5 draft, two characters have to sacrifice what’s most important to save the third character’s life.

  9. Hmmm. It occurs to me that the lead character’s stakes aren’t all that high. Get rid of a nuisance (a former coworker living under a cloud of suspicion) with whom she’s been stranded in a blizzard. Of course, they both have to survive the blizzard and the bad guy, but she doesn’t know about the bad guy until toward the end.

    So it looks like I have something to work on!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I love discoveries like this–where there’s a clear path forward to improvement. Have fun!

  10. So important to raise the stakes – we discuss this often in my critique group. A common comment/criticism is that there is not enough tension. No tension equals no story. Make your readers worry and care!

  11. Sophia Zervas says:

    Since my protagonist connects his self-worth to accolades and recognition (his lie), losing an international piano competition would confirm his fear that he lacks the talent to be a concert artist. He knows that has potential, but whether that potential will be realized is the question, and the loss of potential would crush his motivation. Additionally, he fears that, if he doesn’t win, he will never gain his father’s respect and lose the esteem of his musician friends. Do these stakes sound high enough?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as things are *more* than just fears but realities, then they’re definitely good stakes.

  12. Oooor….

    Unbeknownst to his superiors, Captain Mac strikes up a friendship with the alien. Ig-dwar (whovnever gets a POV scene) seems likable and honest enough, but his cultural differences are sometimes confusing and unsettling. His people (acording to Ig-dwar) are benevolent, and mainly interested in other planets for science, but are also easily offended and dangerous when angered.

    Mac begins to doubt his new friend’s intentions. What if he is really a scout for an invasion? – If so, he should turn him in to prevent him from making a report back on the valuable nature of Earth. If he doesn’t he may help lead an invading force right to Earth. But what if he really is innocent and honest? – If so, he should by all means be as friendly and helpful as possible. If he hurts Ig-dwar he will bring down the wrath of the injured aliens.

    So he is stuck upon the horns of a dilemma. He has to choose. But if he chooses wrong, he brings destruction upon Earth.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This could definitely work, but only if readers are right there with Captain Mac in his dilemma. If readers are convinced that Ig-Dwar is no threat, then Mac’s dithering will never inspire the tension of high stakes.

  13. S0 far, a mercenary unit on the verge of going broke takes a job to steal data from a secret research facility.
    It’s unlikely that they will be just turned over to the Police if they got caught.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nice. If we’re always thinking in terms of consequences for our characters’ actions, then the stakes will usually fall right into line with that.

  14. Clarissa says:

    In my book, one main character is trying to free her world. The first risk is that she could die herself. But more importantly, her brother, the last one out of her five family members, could die also. She is also risking betrayal by telling her fear-filled best friend of their plans. The second main character risks his life, his army career, and his heart to follow her.

  15. Christina says:

    Thank you for this highly informative article!! Your blog is amazingly helpful and truly inspirational. 🙂

    Looking back at my story, I’m finding it hard to pin-point a risk other than losing one’s life. The story is a thriller of sorts (if ‘survival-mystery-drama’ is a genre). As it starts, my protagonist has basically lost all that she could ever fear to lose–her cover identity, her security, and her pride due to a genius prankster who’s unaffected by her mysterious powers. She can’t use her abilities, she’s trapped in one location, and people around her are dropping like flies.

    She can’t risk much, because everything that matters to her is already null. Except her life. So, the risk is death, and the goal is not-death. Rather black and white, so I’m not sure if the stakes are entertaining enough.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hard to come up with stakes that are any higher than life and death–especially if we’re talking the deaths of more people than just the protag. But it’s always worthwhile to dig down and figure out what has the power to hurt your protagonist while she’s still living. What would be worse than death in her story?

  16. Ildefonso Cabrera Matute says:

    Kal realized that he just smack face first in the big leagues and that he has to become stronger in order to get his revenge. He was the punisher but now he is the punished and every move determines if he lives or dies. Upon learning his heritage, he realizes the world around him just got bigger and that his people are on the verge of extinction. Then the rest of the world will follow suit. In order to be able to fight back, first he has to race against time to find the one person that can unite his people, save the free world from destruction and fight until the last man.

  17. My current WIP is told from two POV’s. The Heroine risks losing the one man she’s ever allowed herself to love if she publishes the article she’s currently writing about him. She also risks her career if she doesn’t publish the article. The Hero’s entire image is at risk if that article goes live. Everything he’s worked hard to keep in the past will come to light. He’s America’s golden boy and if people find out who he really is, where he actually came from, it will tarnish that golden boy image. But is she worth the risk?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds great! The heroine’s in trouble no matter what she does: that’s the stuff of great conflict.

  18. Protagonist Blake moves to a small town to live following his childhood sweetheart, an innocent christian girl. He Gets caught up in deep drug dealing and with the local gangs, whilst trying to keep everything hidden from the girl. Then what seems like a ticket out of the game for Blake turns out to be a ticket even deeper in. The girl is drawn deep into the mix forcing the protagonist to have to make a decision that will ruin everything he has worked for in the hood but it being the only way for him to save the girl (from being sexually abused.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There should always be consequences. Characters should never get nothing for nothing. So good job!

  19. Darren Louw says:

    if my character fails the entire world could be destroyed, i’m worried this is too cliche, but the only other one i can think of based on the context is the enslavement of the human race?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The highest stakes will always be the same thing. Don’t worry about that. They’re universal. Just focus on making sure your execution is original.

  20. Hope-Marie Palmer says:

    Great post. I was wondering if these are high enough stakes:

    The MC is invited to join a rebel group (the government is actually the antag) against the government. If she is discovered her brother will die, but if she doesn’t join the rebels she may never find out what happened to their parents.

    Are they too low?

  21. I know I’m a bit late, but I was wondering, my MC loses everything she has in the first two chapters of my story, would her losing everything again be more meaningful or less meaningful?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s always something left to be loss. What, specifically, is the MC left with that she treasures most? It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical object.

      • Her four year old daughter. She had to give her away as a baby to protect her and now that she found her again, she might lose her again.

  22. Arene Willis says:

    Since joining and working for the opposing force (the protagonists’ faction) is punishable by death for both the offender, their loved ones and closest associates, as well as losing their dignity, the stakes are rather high if you fail. Also, as the antagonist is rather imperialistic, its could also be the fate of the world at stake…
    One of my protagonists is a little special; he has a high affinity with a certain destructive element, and the antagonist wants to capture him and focus mainly on making him obey and use his abilities for what the antagonist wills them. And when it comes to the circumstances, without too much spoilage, this means my protagonist could lose both his free will and humanity, since the antagonist doesn’t feel very limited by morals to use special means control him and turn him into his personal attack dog.
    Are the stakes too high? I’ve only recently started to write stuff other than short stories, and could use help from someone who has plenty of knowledge on the subject!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      A good rule of thumb is: the bigger the bad guy, the bigger the stakes. So if you have a bad guy who’s up there on a global level, then you automatically get (and usually want) global stakes.

  23. If my protagonist risks destroying her marriage (although that’s not going well anyway), losing her half-sister as the only family she has left (her mother is in a nursing home in a persistent vegetative state after a car accident engineered by her father and her half-brother disappeared after killing her father for doing that), and also risks exposing the deep dark secrets (of incest and abortion) she’s been running and hiding from her whole life, is that high enough stakes? If not, what can I do to up the ante?
    I know I’m coming to this party when it’s pretty much over, but I appreciate your help and all your insightful articles, of which I’m still trying to get caught up on…

    • Come to think of it, the protag is probably risking her life, too, when she exposes the illegal activities her half-sister and her husband are involved in, because they’ve killed before to keep people quiet…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No, I’d definitely say your stakes are high. We’re talking all kinds of personal and relational “deaths” at risk here.

  24. Jim Arnold says:

    The stakes is losing the entire world to aliens. Jack wants to sit around and wonder what happened to the zing to life. He knows something is wrong being in his 30s and he’s feeling like an old man.

    No idea as to what’s happening with the world until he sees the news. Now he’s really depressed. Yet, he knows someone has to save the country to save the world.

    (Too much?)

  25. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Not at all. World-risking stakes won’t be right for every story, but they sound like they’ll work very well for you here. Good job tying into a more personal level as well.

Trackbacks

  1. […] In short, the story stakes are whatever the character is risking. Usually, the easiest way to identify the stakes is simply to figure out what it is your character cares about …read more […]

  2. […] Helpful tips: This article sets out clearly what the stakes of your character are and what the common pitfalls with stakes can be, its quite an interesting read: Most Common Writing Mistakes 42: When your story stakes aren’t high enough by K M Weiland. […]

  3. […] with a good opening, your story can fizzle if the stakes aren’t high enough. K.M. Weiland shows two ways your stakes could be too low and how to fix them. One way to mess up your stakes is with an ill-placed or ill-conceived dream sequence, as Kristen […]

  4. […] What happens if your story stakes aren’t high enough? K.M. Weiland answers in part 42 of her Most Common Writing Mistakes series. […]

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