Let’s face it, space is a risky business. I always considered every launch a barely controlled explosion.
— Aaron Cohen, NASA Administrator
Before 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.
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
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K is for Kittens – yes kitties!