• Does he keep his past hidden?
  • Does she find her sister?
  • Do they reach HQ in time?
  • Does she discover who poisoned Lady Persephone?

What’s at stake in your novel differs from your character’s motivation. Your character is motivated to resolve a dilemma, which they may or may not accomplish. The stake is the consequence of failure. It’s why they try, and why the story matters—to you, to your characters, and to readers.  

  • Does he keep his past hidden?
    STAKE: If unmasked, his kids will be taken away from him.
  • Does she find her sister?
    STAKE: The family unit is fractured, and past traumas remain unresolved.
  • Do they reach HQ in time?
    STAKE: If they fail, a radioactive ocean wave will engulf the East Coast.
  • Does she discover who poisoned Lady Persephone?
    STAKE: If she doesn’t, a maniacal killer will strike again.

“I must do this—but I cannot do this.”

Powerful stories couple what’s at stake with an equal force preventing the character from accomplishing their goal. What seems to be preventing the main character from being able to act?

 A story’s protagonist is presented with a dilemma of personal importance. To meet the challenge, they must take risks. How your protagonist accomplishes their goals and faces hurdles along the way are what makes them interesting and memorable. Their past history, personal flaws, or fears may all need to be overcome to accomplish your book’s goal. This is the hero’s journey

In blockbuster novels, the protagonist’s personal stakes often become entangled with larger-scale conflicts.

Plot, character, and theme coalesce in the book’s emotional stakes. Readers must be fully engaged and care about the hoped-for outcome. 

Lesser stakes

A novel includes stakes big and small, internal and external. Less significant quandaries will be found in the book’s earlier pages, with the stakes building along the way. 

Examine your book’s individual scenes to see what their stakes are.

Some stakes may be accomplished along the way, some might not. However, all loose ends should be addressed and resolved in some fashion by novel’s end.

Raising the stakes

Stay conscious of pacing. As your book heads toward its climax, the stakes get higher. In thrillers, there may be less exposition and more action in their latter parts. (“The time for talk is over…”) Whatever the novel’s stakes, they are now more important than ever, and readers should be fully invested in the story’s outcome.

As your character struggles to accomplish their goals, their situation may change, raising the stakes: they’re denied the problem-solving tools they were relying on, the threat is much more dangerous or significant than first thought—perhaps even a matter of survival—or the timetable changes.

Adding a ticking clock amps up suspense. Speaking of which, should you try and write three pages by the end of today? What’s at stake?


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