What are the stakes?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about raising the stakes for our characters in fiction writing, and what that actually means. I Googled some definitions of “stakes” in this context and found that a good way to think about it (for me, at least) is the negative consequences if the character fails. In other words, what’s the worst that can happen if the character doesn’t achieve his or her goal?

Stakes are obviously important. If the character doesn’t have anything to lose, the reader won’t be invested in the story. But does that mean everything has to be a life or death situation? In a lot of recent young adult speculative fiction, the stakes are objectively very high – things like saving the world from evil dictatorships, alien invasions, demonic uprisings etc. Think about stories like The Hunger Games, Divergent, Jennifer Armentrout’s “Lux” series, Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Demon’s Lexicon” trilogy etc. We also see these  kinds of stakes (perhaps expressed in a more humorous and less overtly threatening way) in some middle grade books like “The True Meaning of Smekday” which involves one of the most incompetent alien invasions the world has ever seen!

Stakes don’t always have to be so earth-shattering (figuratively or literally). Quieter and more internal stakes can be just as devastating for a main character who fails to achieve her goals and can be just as engaging for the reader. For example, failure to learn how to make friends and establish a sense of community, failure to come to terms with one’s family and develop a sense of self-acceptance, failure to get good grades at school and get into a good college. Even failure to decide what to do with one’s young life can be devastating for the character.

One conclusion I’ve come to about stakes is that they need to matter to the character in a way that engages the reader, but that doesn’t mean they need to involve the destruction of the planet.

Another conclusion I’ve come to is that the character  must be challenged in the course of the narrative in terms of the stakes. We always talk about obstacles, things that get in the character’s way, sticking the character in a tree and throwing rocks at her. But those rocks have to be significant rocks (i.e. boulders not pebbles), and they have to impact the character’s ability to achieve her goals. Simply giving the character a cold so she finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning may be a challenge for her, but it may not have anything much to do with her ability to succeed in her aims. Also, throwing an obstacle in the way and then immediately removing it doesn’t raise much tension: for example, saying that a huge tree falls in her path, but then, like magic, a bulldozer comes and clears it away. Yes, there’s a temporary obstacle, but the character doesn’t actually have to do anything to confront it. Even if the character herself calls the guy with the bulldozer to come and clear the tree, it isn’t a very difficult obstacle for her. EVEN if she goes to call the guy with the bulldozer, finds that her cellphone battery has died and has to go to the nearest public phone box to make the call, it’s not all that significant in terms of the stakes and the reader’s engagement in the story. The character doesn’t have to do much that gives her any insight into stakes or her personal challenges. She’s simply mechanically doing what anyone else would do in those circumstances. Now, if the only guy she knows with a bulldozer is the antagonist, or someone else she’s really scared of or doesn’t trust, but he’s her only hope of moving the tree, that may start to look more significant in terms of really meaningful obstacles.

I’m sure a lot of this is second nature to many writers out there, but I read a lot of books where it *looks* like there are high stakes and difficult obstacles, but you scratch the surface and the main character doesn’t have much hard work or serious soul-searching to do to make his or her way through the narrative. So I recommend that writers really take a look at what’s at stake for the character and what’s the worst that can happen if she fails, AND how to make it REALLY difficult for her to achieve her aims in ways that challenge her deepest fears and insecurities. That should engage the reader big time!