Let’s start at the beginning—
What Are Stakes?
Stakes are what a character stands to lose if they fail, or if they don’t do something. But more than that, stakes are the why.
What about motivation, you ask? Motivation is also a why, isn’t it? Yes! But stakes create that motivation.
If a character doesn’t have a reason to do something, then they aren’t motivated. When that character acts without being motivated to do so, we don’t understand why the character is doing what they do. It ends up feeling forced or contrived.
However, knowing what’s at stake if they don’t act gives that character a reason to move forward—because the alternative (not taking action) is worse.
In story terms, stakes are why something matters—decisions, complications, obstacles, plot points, etc.
Why Are Stakes Important?
Without stakes, you can’t have those big pivotal moments where the hero makes a choice between Option A and Option B. Stakes crystallize why a reluctant hero must rise to the challenge to take on a difficult task because what they stand to lose if they don’t take action is worse. Stakes are why the hero can’t just walk away from the people relying on him/her/them and take the easy way out.
What If My Story Doesn’t Have Stakes?
If you don’t know already, I’m a story consultant. All too often, I see screenplays, novels or tabletop game materials that are missing stakes.
This lack of stakes will tank your story’s impact in a number of ways:
- The audience won’t understand your characters’ motivations.
- The audience won’t invest in your characters or your story.
- The audience will feel like the plot has not point.
- The audience will come away feeling like the story was a waste of time.
Stakes make the decisions and actions of the characters matter. Stakes are why we invest in the protagonist and their success. As we, the audience, bond with those characters, their success or failure becomes ours.
Nobody wants that.
How Do I Put Stakes in My Story?
Once you know how stakes fit into the narrative formula, it’s actually quite simple. The easy place to start is in terms of “life and death” because the outcome of success (life) or failure (death) is so concrete. That’s your starting point.
Next, let’s abstract that idea to character growth (“life”) or character death (“death”). Characters must continue to grow and develop or they become stagnant, which is “character death” from a narrative perspective.
A character that ceases to grow is for all intents and purposes “dead.” If your protagonist has become stagnant, something must happen to make them grow again. Nobody wants to follow a protagonist that stays narratively dead. Instead, they want to experience a character moving forward in growth, meaning success or “life” in the narrative.
Many movies start out with the protagonist “stuck” in a status quo that does not allow them to grow, motivating a need for change but unable to move forward without the inciting incident that will change everything.
A protagonist who finds themselves in a dead-end job and marriage has died, proverbially or narratively. But then some spark suddenly introduces itself and they now have the opportunity to grow again—to choose “life.” Or, the protagonist can remain where they are by choosing “death.” (Think American Beauty.)
Some people find it helpful to think of the “life” part of stakes as the character’s “way of life.” That is, the way of life that is best for the character, usually involving growth or moving forward in some way.
Faced with the two choices, the protagonist is motivated to choose growth (“life”) on the new path. But there will be obstacles along the way that block the protagonist’s path, threatening to send the character back into stagnancy (“death”). If the character overcomes the obstacle, they succeed and move on, continuing to grow. Failure means a setback (if the stakes are lower). Later in the story, when the stakes are high enough, failure means a return to death.
So a rough formula might look something like this:
Stakes > Motivates Action/Decision > Character Proactively Acts/Decides > Faces Obstacle > Fails or Succeeds
If Succeed > Raise Stakes
If Fail > “Character Death”
Tips for Putting Stakes in Your Story
Here are a few quick tips to help you put stakes in your story:
- The stakes must be clear, always.
- The stakes must be big enough to motivate action or decision.
- Don’t go too long without reminding the audience what’s at stake.
- The strongest stakes confront characters with “death”—metaphorical, proverbial, or literal.
- Start small, go big. Use that contrast to create a sense of rising conflict.
- You can always go bigger.
- Can you lower the stakes? Only if other, bigger stakes present themselves.
- Once an obstacle is overcome, raise the stakes (repeat as needed).
- Use other characters to illustrate the consequence of failure (i.e., the stakes).
- Use antagonists to actively work against the protagonist, enforcing the stakes.
- Your antagonists have stakes, too. What motivates them to succeed over the protagonist?
- Use escalation and counter-escalation to continually raise the stakes.
Making It Matter: Examples of How Stakes Work
Let’s say we have a male character that runs a business. He is motivated to complete a big project for his biggest client. He’s operating a business, after all. But that motivation alone is not very strong. Knowing why he wants to complete the project strengthens that motivation significantly. We add that “why” with stakes.
Here’s how we might do that:
- The project is on a tight deadline.
- It requires his entire workforce.
- If he fails to deliver the project at high quality and on time, he may lose that client forever.
- If he loses his biggest client, his struggling business will fold, and everyone will lose their jobs.
- The business owner will lose the business he built from the ground up for more than 40 years.
If the audience knows those five whys—what the stakes are for failure—the owner’s motivation suddenly becomes a helluva lot more powerful. Because we know the whys, as the audience, we invest in that character’s success and want him to succeed. He knows the stakes, too, driving him forward. The more the character wants to succeed, the more the audience will want it for him.
Raising the Stakes
Throughout your story, there should be a general rise in the stakes. At each obstacle or plot point, you can “raise the stakes.” When you raise the stakes, you are adding more to what your character will lose if they fail. It not only fuels motivation so they don’t give up when faced when bigger and harder obstacles, but keeps the story interesting and the audience invested. By the time you reach the big climax in act three, the stakes should be at the highest possible point.
The simplest way to raise the stakes is to throw in a new complication. After all, you can’t sit on the same stakes forever or the audience will get bored. Adding a complication, bump, or obstacle in the protagonist’s goal-seeking puts pressure on the character, making it harder to achieve that goal. Again, the stakes make all of that matter.
How much can you raise the stakes? All the way! But keep it appropriate to the world of your story.
For example, you can go: Loss of face > loss of status > loss of livelihood > loss of life > loss of family’s life > loss of country > loss of world > loss of universe > loss of time and existence.
However, going all the way to the “loss of time and existence” may be too big to be appropriate for your story. A smaller, character-oriented story will run on a smaller scale than a big action sci-fi story. But, as with the narrative character “life” and “death” concept, the “loss of time an existence” can be expressed in metaphorical terms in relation to the character. For example, our business owner may feel this way about the loss of his business.
Speaking of which….
Example of Raising the Stakes
Let’s return to the example of the business owner:
Time to throw in something new—a complication to the business owner’s goal. He discovers one of his employees is stealing from him, jeopardizing the project. If it continues, the project won’t be completed on time and the business owner risks losing money, the client, his business, and more.
To overcome the obstacle, the business owner proactively confronts the employee, who responds by threatening to frame the owner for fraud—raising the stakes.
How does this raise the stakes? Now the stakes are bigger than before: The business owner stands to lose his biggest client, business, livelihood, the livelihood of his employees, and he’s in danger of losing his reputation and going to prison.
We can do this in other ways, too:
The business could burn down, or the client pulls their order without paying at the last minute, or the employees stage a walkout because of the long hours they’ve been working. Maybe all of these complications happen, adding pressure to the business owner and illustrating for the audience how close to failure the protagonist is.
In the third act, the stakes may inflate to their biggest size yet.
Maybe the business is a small biotech research laboratory. An insider from his client reveals that if the lab can’t deliver this order on time, they won’t be able to contain a dangerous pandemic. The stakes jump from loss of livelihood and reputation to global life and death.
Without stakes, none of it would matter.
There’s an added bonus in working out the stakes for your story. Did you notice how, in doing that, we inadvertently (but deliberately) outlined an entire story and all its major turning points? And what a dramatic story it is!
If you are struggling with structuring our outlining the major beats or plot points of your story, consider looking to the stakes and seeing if that helps you get over that hump to reach the finish line.