Up the Stakes

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So What? That’s the question you must get past in your fiction. Why should a reader care?

Keep Reader’s Interest: Make Everything Matter More

The best way to make a reader care about your story, your novel is to make things matter more, put more at risk, up the stakes.

Personal Stakes

This can be accomplished on multiple levels. The first is a personal level. We must care about your character for some reason. A typical kid in a typical school is boring. Why do we care about this character?

  • Moral Character. Because they are honest or loyal, kind or brave, respectful or trustworthy, loved by one and all. Some character trait must endear them to us and that usually has to do with a high moral character, at least on some level. And of course, your story will challenge that moral fiber
  • Someone Loves Them. It’s important that you Show-don’t-Tell that someone loves this character. We like likeable folks; especially if you have a rough character, someone must let the reader know that the character is still lovable. It might be just a dumb animal who loves and is faithful to Mr. Rough Mouth, but it must be something or someone.

Public Stakes

How to Up the Stakes in Your Story | Fiction Notes by Darcy Pattison


In the world of your story or novel, something must also be happening that has consequences. If A doesn’t figure things out, then X, Y and Z will happen and those things add up to one major catastrophe for the city or nation, the neighborhood or the ranch, the business or the spy endeavor.

  • Stretch out the tent pegs. Give the story’s consequences a wider influence than you had originally planned. The events reach tentacles into the very fiber of society (on whatever level is appropriate).
  • Price of Success. What’s the price your character must pay to succeed in their quest? How can you increase the price in terms of moral character or personal relationships? How can you make the character hurt more, while also taking the results to a wider field?
  • Self Sacrifice. Funny–if a character volunteers to endure something, we admire him/her. If they are forced to do it, we sympathize, but we don’t admire them as much. A willingness to pay an unusually high price will raise the stakes.
  • Extreme Effort. Here’s where a story can easily go wrong: you make the trials and ultimate resolution too easy. Instead, push your character to his or her physical limits, mental limits, emotional limits. You love this character that you created, yet you MUST tighten the screws in every way possible, make them suffer, force them to fight for every inch of success. Whatever trials and conflicts you’ve thrown at them, intensify it. Think about extreme sports: the triathon combines on three hard races for a grueling competition. And yes, it’s no accident that upping the public stakes can hardly be separated from its impact on your character.

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