Over the holiday break, I really tried to lean into staying present with my family, resting and reading books, and thinking about my own novel.
If you’ve been with me awhile, you may know that I’m working on a contemporary YA romance, which I’m hoping to query later this year. I’ve been working on this book since 2020 and I’ve done five full revisions.
Is it ready?
Nope. Not yet.
Since this is the only book I’ve ever written that I’ve done multiple rounds of revision on, I believe it’s my strongest. Much stronger than the drafts languishing in my metaphorical drawer. It’s also the story that’s caused me to really do a deep dive into studying revision, and the craft of writing in general.
And as I was thinking and reading and assessing my novel over the break, I had an aha moment: I have a problem with my stakes. Ugh.
So, as I’ve been doing more thinking and analyzing and researching, and there’s one conclusion I keep coming back to: without clear, immediate, meaningful stakes, readers will not keep turning pages.
Okay, but what are stakes, really? And how can we fine-tune them so that our books are compelling and propulsive? Let’s take a look at how to raise the stake in your novel.
What are stakes?
In short, stakes are the meaningful consequences that occur when your character reaches or fails to achieve their goals.
I want to draw your attention to the word meaningful here.
I hope you know by now, that character is what drives your whole novel, but think of a book’s stakes like the engine, a metaphor I borrowed from Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin. When readers are following a character they care about, they are invested in whatever the protagonist is invested in.
So the consequences don’t necessarily have to be life or death, or consequences on a global scale…they must be meaningful to the character.
Why are they so important?
Your book’s stakes are tied to everything else that is going to make your book shine or fall flat: character, plot, motivation and goal, conflict, tension, suspense, pace, POV, and your book’s heart.
They’re tied to character, motivation and goal, because they’re intimately tied to what the character wants and what they care about. When the character gets what they want or fails, their transformation over the course of the book is going to look quite different depending on those stakes and what matters to them.
You could have two characters competing in a cooking competition, for example. One might want to win because they need the prize money that comes with winning. They cannot afford to attend otherwise, and maybe they believe that winning this scholarship will help elevate their lifestyle, buying them the security they’ve always longed for but have never had. The second character competing might not care about the money thanks to their family’s full pocketbook—but maybe they need to win because they want to prove to their overbearing family that they don’t need to go to a prestigious Ivy league school, when what they really want to do is become a chef to find fulfillment and happiness.
So for character 1, their stakes look very different from character 2, and those stakes are intimately tied to—and inspired by—their motivations and goals.
Stakes are tied to plot because what happens over the course of the plot—the scenes that test the protagonist—because the plot points can either help raise or lower the stakes.
Going back to our cooking competition characters, maybe character 1 has a relative who gets sick and now they must also pay for their hospital bills. How would they do that? By winning the cooking competition. Stakes raised. Or for character 2, those stakes might get raised if overbearing Dad decides to accept admittance and enroll character 2 into Yale. Now they must truly prove that cooking is a viable alternative for them.
Stakes are tied to pace because if the pace feels a little slow, chances are that the stakes aren’t high enough. And the conflict, tension, and suspense hinges largely upon what everything means to your character and what is at stake for them.
And the stakes are tied to your book’s POV because without a clear, engaging voice, those stakes might not even materialize fully on the page at all.
Finally, they matter intimately to your book’s heart. Most stakes tap deeply into a universal human desire (belonging, love, safety, faith, redemption, etc.), which is, ultimately, what makes your readers relate to your protagonist. Your book’s heart—what’s at it’s core, the message you’re trying to convey about the human experience—does the same thing. So your stakes matter on a deep level as well.
So, as you can see, stakes matter. Big time.
How can we raise the stakes in our writing?
1. Go deep, ask why?
The number one question I find I ask my clients is “Why?” Why is the character doing this or why do they feel this way. If you want to find—and deepen—your story’s stakes, start by asking this question.
Why does this goal matter to your protagonist? What does it mean to them?
And I don’t just mean on an external level (like character 1 in our cooking competition example needing money—though that’s important too, which I discuss below); I mean, what does it mean to them deeply, personally? So for cooking competition character 1 it means a door opening to a life beyond poverty. It means safety, it means ease of living. It means no more scrimping to buy food. It means the possibility of working at a restaurant one day.
So once you understand the true why that’s driving your character, make sure you get that on the page. Don’t leave it to chance or believe that the reader will just get it. They won’t…not without you letting them know why this character cares deeply about this thing.
2. Make sure you have both internal and external stakes
As I mentioned above, it’s important to have both internal and external stakes in your book. For cooking competition character 1, winning means getting the money (external) and safety (internal). For cooking competition character 2 it might mean purchasing admittance to a culinary academy versus having to go to Yale (external), and it might mean proving to their father that they are destined for something greater that will make them happier/pursuing a meaningful passion (internal).
The more you can interweave the internal and external stakes with the plot points/obstacles, the more compelling your narrative will be.
3. Embrace the good and bad sides of your characters.
Humans are imperfect. We make mistakes, we have flaws, we have moments of weakness or anger or self-doubt. Similarly, antagonists aren’t all bad. Leaning into these grey areas raise the stakes. Because what if, when pitching a hero against a villain, there’s a moment of connection, of empathy for the villain? A moment that shows the villain’s motives (maybe they’re doing their dastardly deeds to find a cure for the mysterious illness that’s killing their spouse). Wouldn’t that make it harder to kill the villain? This instantly raises the stakes.
Similarly, when your hero makes a terrible choice due to their weakness (a hot-headed comment; a reckless stunt, etc.) that’s going to raise the stakes as well.
These kinds of dichotomies might give your protagonists’ actions stronger consequences.
4. Give them conflicting desires/goals
This is such a great way to raise the stakes. When you give your protagonist two desires that cannot coexist. Put them in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. What if, for example, our two cooking competition characters started to have feelings for each other? They both desperately want to win, and have their internal and external reasons for wanting the title, but there can only be one winner. And as they fall in love, they might have to choose between their new relationship and everything else they’ve ever wanted. Pretty high stakes, right?
5. Make the stakes change and evolve over the course of the novel
As your character transforms through the events of the novel, they might make choices that change the game. Or the other characters/plot events might force the game to change. Either way, the stakes are raised when new information or revelations are introduced that have particular meaning for your protagonist.
Going back to our cooking competition couple, what if Character 2 was falling headfirst in love with character 1, but was still determined to win…but then they discover that character 1’s mother has thousands of dollars of hospital debt that character 1 must pay off. How does that change the stakes for character 2? Or, as with my earlier example when their dad decides to enroll them in Yale, and now they must work harder to wriggle out from under Daddy’s thumb. The stakes are changing as new information is revealed.
6. Tap into a universal desire
I mentioned this above, but, to reiterate, your stakes will carry more weight if they tap into a universal desire (belonging, security, love, happiness, fulfillment, redemption, etc.). Why? Because not all stories are end-of-the-world stakes. And giving your character a highly relatable reason to want what they want will make your readers feel invested.
7. Make the stakes immediate
A way of thinking about this is in showing in a visceral way (in-scenes) what is at stake. While you must show what’s going on in the character’s head as they navigate their obstacles, keep in mind the other ways to show what is at stake. Craft scenes that paint the picture of what your character is up against.
So let’s look at our cooking competition characters again: For character 1, who desperately needs the money, you might craft a scene in which we show the stress of them caring for their ailing mother as they open up yet another can of cheap beans for dinner, bills piling up on Mom’s nightstand. Compare that to the character just thinking about how it’d be nice if they had money so that they could dig themselves out of the financial hole and help mom, etc.
It's a matter of showing—clearly and specifically—what the world looks like if they lose or win.
8. Make them urgent
Ask yourself why now? Why does the character need to accomplish their goal now? This is the ticking clock that could help drive momentum in your book. For cooking competition character 1 it might mean that their house might get repossessed if the bills aren’t paid by the date 3 days after the cooking competition. And for character 2 it might be related to graduation day, or some kind of college enrollment deadline.
The sense of urgency makes the reading experience propulsive, while raising the stakes exponentially.
9. Give everything meaning
We, as readers, will have no clue what the stakes are for your protagonist if there’s not enough meaning applied to the events that occur. In other words, if we have no idea how a character is processing what’s happening, then the stakes might be easy to miss. The character is in the driver’s seat, remember that. They are the lens through which we view the entire story, and unless we know what they think about things—what things mean to them—we might not care or feel the weight of the stakes at all.
Remember, stakes are the engine that’s powering the car driven by your character. So if you have a problem with your manuscript feeling too slow, or like there aren’t any real consequences staring down your character, check in on the stakes. Chances are, like me, you might have a problem with your stakes.
For further reading, I recommend checking out Intuitive Editing by Tiffany Yates Martin, from which a lot of this came.
If you’re feeling like something isn’t quite working for your manuscript, please reach out and with a few specific questions during a free 30-min chat, I’m happy to help you think of a way to raise your stakes so your book is more propulsive.