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…
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.