Tag Archive: stakes

6 Questions to Make Sure Your Story Has Stakes

Once upon a time I was working on a revamped novel idea – a fun, scary, action-packed revenge story. It was going to be great. I was feeling especially confident after reading this blog: “Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers.” I pictured myself pounding out this simple revenge story while my other novel, a more complicated mystery-thriller, percolated. What a swell plan, and then I noticed something was missing…

STAKES. Holy moly! There were no stakes! And I don’t mean that my vampire hunter heroes forgot their wooden stakes. No, the problem was if my vengeful hero didn’t get her revenge… oh well. Shrug. No biggie. She’d survive. Though all the other points made by the above blog are spot on, like having a proactive hero with a goal, an absence of story stakes can be the revenge plot’s downfall. Beginner writers beware!

But wait, don’t revenge plots inherently have high stakes like dangerous situations and even death? Yes, but putting your hero in life-threatening danger during their quest is a scene stake not a story stake. Every scene needs stakes (aka consequences), but the overall story needs ONE BIG CONSEQUENCE if the hero fails to achieve his goal. It doesn’t matter how many scene stakes you throw at your hero if the overall story stake is missing.

Note that story stakes must be dire enough to make the reader care. If all that happens to the heroine upon failing is she feels crummy, well, so what? In SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder explains that stakes need to be “primal”, such as survival, hunger, love, protection of loved ones, and death, to ensure that the audience is invested in the hero’s quest. I struggled against this advice. I mean, come on, does what’s at stake always have to be love or death or survival? So I thought about all my favorite books and TV shows and films, and oh my gosh, yes, the answer is a resounding YES. And the most common primal stake? Love. Even if the story isn’t a romance, even if it’s a life-or-death action flick, love is often a big story stake. This might be why most stories have a love subplot. But the love doesn’t have to be romantic. It can also be paternal or platonic. Just make sure your character cares about someone, then jeopardize that relationship or the actual life of that person to create or raise stakes.

Of course, it’s not just revenge plots that can overlook story stakes. It can happen in any genre. So, to make sure it doesn’t happen to you (and me – again), I’ve made a handy Story Stakes Checklist…

Story Stakes Shark

1)   If the protagonist fails, what happens? Would she lose a loved one, or die tragically, or get her heart irrevocably broken? Would her home be destroyed? Would evil rule the world? Something bad must happen if the protagonist fails to achieve her goal.

2)   Is this the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist? What is your protagonist most scared will happen if he doesn’t achieve his goal? What would figuratively or literally kill him? Or both?

3)   Are the stakes tangible? Will an actual action happen if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal? Will his lover dump him? Will he be sent to jail and separated from his family? Love, like all stakes, loses its power if it’s not connected to a concrete event.

4)   Are the stakes worth fighting for? Your protagonist can’t “kind of” want her goal. Achieving her goal must mean everything to her! Failing would ruin her life! The protagonist can’t be ambivalent to the stakes.

5)   Who else cares about the stakes? If only the protagonist cares, the stakes may be too small. Think about the other characters in the story. Do they care if the protagonist fails or succeeds? At least one should or else the protagonist might be a drama queen with trivial stakes. Stakes cannot be inconsequential.

6)   If your protagonist succeeds, does she save the day? Avoiding the stakes must feel like a giant victory!

Making readers care about your story and protagonist is difficult to pull off, but with primal story stakes it’s possible. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, figure out the stakes before you start writing, because without stakes, you won’t have a compelling story, and it’s best to find that out before you’ve written tens of thousands of words. Trust me.


For More Blog Posts from Heather, click here!


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F is for False Stakes

Let’s face it, space is a risky business. I always considered every launch a barely controlled explosion.

— Aaron Cohen, NASA Administrator

BLAST_FBefore writing this post, I Googled “false stakes” to see what other people had written on the subject and found… nothing! Not a single article or blog post on false stakes of the non-vampire variety. I felt like a student studying dark matter, questioning whether it’s even real since it can neither be seen nor detected using current technologies. However, I believe false stakes exist in many books. I will attempt to explain.

First, a definition… Some define stakes as “consequences of failure” and others as “the thing the hero stands to lose.” For example, a consequence of failure is death, whereas what the hero stands to lose is his life. These are essentially the same thing, but the viewpoint is different. I prefer the latter definition because it makes the stakes tangible and includes something of value that’s worth fighting for.

Therefore, a false stake would be something that might appear to be of value, something that if lost would be of consequence to the hero, but is not. When this happens, the reader will be disappointed and/or bored. What’s the point of reading if the stakes are fake, non-existent or inconsequential? No point! So, with that said…

3 Writing Tips to Avoid False Stakes

  • Make the stakes matter. It’s imperative that the hero would be utterly devastated if what’s at stake is lost. Stakes feel false if the characters don’t really care that much about them. On the flip side, even small stakes (like winning a spelling bee) can be gripping if the character really cares about winning and truly believes his life will be over if he loses.

  • Never forget the stakes. A common mistake is to set up the stakes in the beginning and then forget about them as the story unfolds. I feel cheated when I read a story like this. This mistake is often found in YA novels that promise a compelling mystery or exciting fantasy or intriguing personal journey and then devolve into a cookie-cutter romance with the characters forgetting all about the stakes that are supposed to be on the line.

  • Use stakes to create tension and conflict. The threat of losing what’s at value should inform every decision the hero makes, and it should make those choices hard. This creates tension and conflict, and makes the stakes real, not false.

2 Examples

The Hunger Games is a good example because what’s at stake is not just Katniss’s life, but her family. She’s staying alive for them, because if she dies, they might not survive the next winter. And even though Katniss’s family is not with her in the Games, Collins skillfully keeps them in Katniss’s thoughts throughout the whole book. Katniss’s family is 1) why her life matters, 2) never far from her mind, and 3) informs every decision Katniss makes.

A bad example, which will go unnamed, is the story of a girl who survives an accident that kills all her friends. What’s at stake seems to be her sanity, because she’s haunted by memories of them and sometimes sees their ghosts, but once she meets a cute guy at her new school, she forgets about her dead friends and concentrates on him. Needless to say, I stopped reading.

1 Link for more help

6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story Has Real Stakes

And in case you’re just dropping in now, here’s our April A to Z list thus far:

A is for Antagonist

B is for Backstory

C is for Character Change

D is for Dialogue

E is for External Conflict

And coming up:

G is for Genre

H is for Heroes

I is for Internal Conflict

K is for Kittens – yes kitties!

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Death: The Highest Stake for a Writer

I’m postponing the next installment on my series, Fiction as Art, as we’ve embarked on a Halloween themed week. 

Hand Inked Grim Reaper IllustrationThe Grim Reaper broke into my house on a frigid January night  when I was five and stole the body and perhaps the soul of my four-year-old brother. I had no understanding of death at such a tender age and society had no intention of explaining it to me. Consequently, I had a nightmarish fear of death well into my teen years, constantly looking over my shoulder for the arrival of the sinister harbinger of death, waiting for his scythe to slice my soul from my body and take it to…well… I had no idea where a soul went.

Most of us can describe the image of The Grim Reaper, having seen depictions of him in folklore and movies. It puts a human face on death as the black-cloaked, skeletal, scythe-wielding entity who collects the soul at the moment we die. He escorts our soul to the other side, acting as a guide, often called a Psychopomp, and helps us make the transition to the afterlife. Some accounts say he just touches the person to pop their soul so they don’t feel pain when they die, but most say he uses that sharp blade to slice the soul from the body. According to the Book of Revelation (6:1-8) he is considered to be the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse.

The Grim Reaper is known for not saying much, always having a grin on his face, able to turn his head completely around a la Linda Blair, vigilant lest someone try to cheat him. He rides in a rickety old coach drawn by white horses that makes a horrifying noise because of the stones he carries in it. When he takes someone’s soul, he drops off a stone. If we browse through medieval history we can see that the figure of death as a skeleton might be linked with the massive deaths that occurred between the late fourteenth to early fifteenth century as a result of the Black Death.

The biological definition of death is the total cessation of life processes that eventually occurs in all living things.  Life and death are inseparable and inevitable parts of this world’s existence. But we humans crave to know more, to understand what that means and thus, our obsessive fascination with death. We want a vivid picture, someone to come back and tell us what’s on the other side. Profound questions arise: Is there really a God, Heaven, Hell? Does Satan exist? We want to know what it feels like to die, what we will see, where we will go, if we’ll meet our loved ones again. And since most of us are terrified of death, we put a scary face on it, whereas we could have made The Reaper a friendly guide to help us make this important transition.

This fascination results in a fertile field for artists. The presence of this frightening entity has captured the imagination of storytellers, writers and artists for as long as man has existed on this earth. And as writers there is no greater stake in our stories than death, in all its scary and magnificent forms. Crafting the visage and the fear into a manuscript is an exciting way to produce tension because it is universally felt. Your protagonist must save the town, the country, the world, or even the universe from annihilation. She must reverse the evil antagonist’s plan to murder innocents and set the world on its path to destruction. Or, maybe she just saves one life: a child, a lover, a parent, a stranger. Your story can evolve from the result of an unfortunate accident, or death can be used as the ultimate sacrifice or punishment. Killing characters has become very popular in modern fiction, be it film, television or novels. TV actors often lament that they don’t get a script until the moment of the table read and they quickly go to the last page and read backwards to determine if they survive the episode. No one is spared theses days, not even a lead character. One of my favorite editors constantly quips when reviewing my stories: “Who dies? We’re writers! Someone must die!”

My first book, which morphed into a trilogy because I had so much to say, is the result of that first encounter with the Grim Reaper. I’ve always been interested in what happens to the energy in your body after death. The science of physics teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, so it must go somewhere. Is it a cohesive entity? Is that what we call a soul? Is there someone or something in control of it? These questions have walked me down many pathways in my life as I explored, studied, and questioned religion, astrology, reincarnation, and the science of death. Unfortunately, I have no answers. No one does, and most of us rely on faith in some form to help us cope with the scary notion of death.

The concept of the Grim Reaper is a chilling reminder that death is a reality that we all must face. However, he can also teach us much. He reminds us that life is short and we should make the most of every moment. So, eat dessert, sing and dance every day, tell your loved ones how much they mean to you. Because one day, when you least expect it, he just might crook that bony finger at you and say, “Come, my pretty. Time’s up!





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Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: 3 Things that Keep Your Story on the Road (not the Goat Path)

Last week I talked about Mapping the Mushy Middle of a story so that your characters don’t get waylaid on some meandering goat path of grass-eating boredom before finally arriving in Act III. Or worse, get stuck in the swamp and never reach The End! It comes down to knowing your destinations in Act II: the Midpoint and the All Is Lost moment. If you don’t know what these are yet, click here.

Where am I?!

Where am I?!

Now that you know where you’re going, the trick is to get there without losing your readers. But how do you know if a story is on the road or the goat path? The answer: test every scene for Conflict, Stakes and Change.

Yes, EVERY scene. All three things.


We all know the mantra that every scene needs conflict, but sometimes we fool ourselves into believing that a story’s overall conflict is enough. It’s not. Be specific about conflict on a scene-by-scene level by asking these questions:

  1. What does the hero want that she can’t have? Because you can’t have conflict without desire.
  2. Who is opposing the hero right now? Not in the last scene, not somewhere in the background of the story, but right at this exact moment. Someone should always been at odds with the hero, even if it’s not intentional. It can even be the hero herself.


“But my whole book has stakes, a huge disaster that will befall my character if they don’t overcome something,” you may say, “So obviously every scene has stakes.” If you know your book’s macro stakes, that is awesome! However, that does not guarantee every scene has stakes. Nor are macro stakes enough. Stories also need micro stakes, little consequences in each scene that connect to the macro stakes. To test for stakes in each scene, ask these questions:

  1. Is the hero doing something that has a consequence? For example, if he is deciding what to eat for lunch, there had better be consequences tied to each choice. If not, why are you writing this scene? You’re on the goat path! Get back on the road.
  2. Does the reader feel the presence of the macro stakes? The Hunger Games does this brilliantly. Even in the scenes where Katniss’s life is not being immediately threatened, she thinks about her family or district or Gabe, a reminder that people are depending on her to survive The Games. These macro stakes never leave her mind and therefore the reader feels tension in every scene.


You know that things have to change over the course of a story, but do you know something must change in each individual scene? Sure does, otherwise you’re sitting on the side of the road, story stalled.

  1. What’s the emotional change? Characters enter a scene on either a positive or negative emotion, and exit on the counter emotion. For example, a scene where the hero is physically fighting bad guys to save her brother (obvious stakes and conflict) is weak if the character enters the fight confident and leaves confident when she wins. It’s more interesting if she doubts her abilities going into the fight and gains confidence by the end.
  2. What’s the story change? This can be information or action, as long as something happens to move the story forward along the road.

Now what if a scene has one or two of these things, but not all? I once gave feedback to someone in this situation and suggested they cut the scene. Why? Because it didn’t seem necessary and it kind of bored me. I have no tolerance for meandering. “But,” the writer said, “this scene sets up an important piece of information the reader needs to know for later!” Fair enough. That leaves the writer two options: 1) Insert conflict, stakes and change into the scene so it’s not just information, or 2) Combine that scene with another, so instead of two weak scenes you have one excellent scene.

And now you’re on the road to an awesome, engaging story!

Next Up from Heather… I revise some common writer advice.

For more on story stakes, check out this post: 6 Questions to Ask to Make Sure Your Story has Real Stakes.

Click here for more posts from Heather.


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