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!

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

16 thoughts on “F is for False Stakes”

  1. I wonder if there is a different term that tends to be used online for describing this writing mishap? Of course, that doesn’t help you with the letter F necessarily… but it could explain where the discussion went!

  2. I’m really surprised there are no resources out there about false stakes. I loved this article, Heather, and the previous ones, because the advice (and clear, concise examples) are invaluable when shaping a story, or when beginning the editing process. It’s really important to avoid this trap because, as a reader, there’s nothing worse than feeling cheated when you’ve invested so much time!

    1. Me too! (re: no resources online) If you can find any, let me know. I’m curious what others think about false stakes. And thanks for the comment – I’m so glad the posts are helpful!

  3. Love this one! Though when I first read it, I had a backwards reading: stakes that the character thinks exist, but actually don’t.

    So, for example, maybe a protagonist thinks that his sister is in danger, but actually, she just left her phone in her car, and because he’s worried she’s in a disaster zone, enters that disaster zone to find her…. and becomes the one in trouble. 😛

    False stakes (via your definition) are a really important thing to avoid. If the conflict gets resolved too easily or neatly, I always feel a little jipped.

    1. That’s what I thought of too — like red-herring stakes!

      This is a really good explanation of not doing the stakes well, though. Totally on point about the YA novels, and I see the same thing in a lot of Doctor Who episodes from the past few seasons… There’s a “twist” or a big revelation, and suddenly it’s a different story. We never get the payoff on the episode we were actually promised.

    2. Thanks, Alex! I did consider writing about red-herrings, but those are fine to use in the right situations. I wonder if “false stakes” is a TV term. I learned it while working on a show, but have not encountered the term in the novel world!

  4. Hi there – I feel like the stakes are lost, also, when I read a novel that just tends to ramble. Out loud and to the book, I say, “Where is this going?” Yes, I have issues. 🙂

  5. The A to Z challenge is slowly turning into a course on how to write for me, I feel like as if I am receiving a lot of precious advice from all over the place. Your posts is one of them, it opened my eyes on things that should not be left out.

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