Who Cares?! The importance of stakes in fiction
By Michelle Barker
Making the Reader Care
When an editor mentions stakes in their feedback on your novel, it’s a polite way of saying, who cares? The answer of course is that the reader should care about what’s happening in your story. If you want them to keep reading, they must care. Your job as the author is to make them care. It’s probably the most important task you have. If your reader doesn’t care what happens to the protagonist, they’ll put the book down.
So how do you make them care?
By raising the stakes for your protagonist. What happens to them has to matter. It has to make a difference in their life. There must be consequences—significant ones—if they fail to get what they’re after. They must stand to lose something important.
Which presupposes another important thing: they should be going after something in the first place. They must have a goal—something to gain. And it should be specific, tangible, and measurable. If the reader doesn’t know what the protagonist wants, there’s no way for them to care about what will happen if they don’t get it. They can’t root for someone who’s aimless.
So your protagonist must want something—badly. And it must be something worth wanting. The protagonist must want it for a good reason (not necessarily the right reason), and the reader should understand why it’s important to them.
The key with stakes is what happens if they don’t get it. What they stand to lose. The stakes must be high. Not necessarily the end of the world—since not every story can involve a world war or an apocalypse. But in a personal sense, yes: the end of something big. Emotional breakdown. A loss of love, or of life. You get to decide what that bad thing is. And you’re free to make it escalate. Bad can get worse. Not just humiliation; jail. Not just jail; death row.
Remember the ring Frodo has to destroy? The story doesn’t start out that way. At first, he thinks he has to find a good hiding place for it. Then he figures he’ll just leave town. Then he decides to drop the ring off with the elves. They try to destroy it; that doesn’t work. By the time they realize they have to take it to Mordor, the reader has a clear idea of what Mordor is, what it means to go there, and what’s at stake if Frodo doesn’t succeed.
It All Starts with the Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is your first chance to introduce stakes into your story. The reader meets the protagonist in their ordinary circumstances and then something happens to turn their world sideways.
We see the idyllic life of the hobbits and then Frodo finds the ring that will bring unimaginable danger to his community. We learn what Katniss Everdeen is willing to do for her family in the harsh world of District 12, and then her sister Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games, prompting Katniss to volunteer in her place. In Pride and Prejudice, we understand the challenges facing a family of five unmarried daughters in the early nineteenth century and then the eligible bachelor, Mr. Bingsley, arrives in town. We watch as orphaned Anne Shirley arrives at Green Gables, only to realize that the Cuthberts were expecting a boy. We journey with Holden Caulfield in New York City, unraveling after his expulsion from Pencey Prep.
It should always be the case that once this inciting incident happens, the protagonist is not free to go back to their simple existence as though it had never taken place. Even if they initially turn down the call to adventure, there’s no way to deny it: the call has happened; the adventure exists. Sure, the protagonist could go back to business as usual, but now they know there’s something else out there for them. Maybe someone desperately needs their help. Maybe this call to adventure is the only way out of their crappy life that they’ve been waiting for, for years. On the surface it might seem like business as usual, but emotionally? No way. Everything has changed. They’ll never be happy unless they answer that call. They know it, and the reader knows it.
Could Anne Shirley just accept being sent back to the orphanage after Marilla’s initial disappointment in not getting a boy? In theory, yes. But she'd never quell the yearning for a place and family to call her own, especially given her fondness for Matthew and the beauty of Green Gables.
Could Holden Caulfield just stay quiet and go along with the phoniness he perceives all around him in society? In theory, yes. But he'd never reconcile with the inauthentic world he so deeply despises.
This is why the inciting incident is so important. It is literally a catalyst. It starts something that, once begun, cannot be undone. It’s your chance to show the reader: this is what the protagonist wants, and this is why it matters.
It must matter. It must be the most important thing to them. If they care, the reader will care. If they have a ho-hum attitude, then the reader will yawn and find something else to do.
How Do You Make It Matter?
By making it personal.
Katniss Everdeen doesn't only volunteer to participate in the Hunger Games to save her sister Prim from certain death. That alone would be brave and selfless. But Suzanne Collins gives her more motivation. Katniss has already lost her father to a mine explosion and lives with the daily pressure of feeding her family. She knows the weight of loss and sacrifice.
Similarly, Frodo isn't just handed a ring to take to Mount Doom. He learns of its dark history and the calamity it can unleash on Middle-earth. But J.R.R. Tolkien goes further, showing us Frodo's love of his uncle Bilbo and the Shire, the bond he forms with the members of the fellowship. The fate of his friends, family, and beloved homeland hangs in the balance, making his quest deeply personal.
Novels must contain conflict on two levels: external and internal.
External conflict is essential to keeping the story moving. But you can have all the car chases and explosions you want in order to raise the external stakes; if they’re not happening to people the reader cares about, the pyrotechnics won’t save you—or your book.
It’s the internal conflicts of your characters that make the reader care. The threat must be personal, and it must be happening to people who seem so real they could materialize in the reader’s living room.
Think of Die Hard. The building could blow up, and yes, that’s bad… but it becomes much worse because John McClane’s wife is in there. Not just his wife; his estranged wife with whom he hopes to get back together. It’s Christmas. They have children. He has something personal to lose.
Use your character’s backstory to both create and deepen their internal conflict. Show the reader how this story is personal to them. It’s an immediate way to raise the stakes.
What Else Can You Do?
Here are some more things to consider when it comes to raising the stakes in your novel:
Honor the chain of causality: Everything your character does should have consequences. Make sure those consequences create bigger obstacles to the achievement of the protagonist’s goal.
Add a ticking clock: Remember that television series, 24? The ticking clock would pop up on the screen as a reminder to viewers that if Jack Bauer didn’t figure out the situation soon, something terrible would happen. But this strategy doesn’t just apply to thrillers, and it doesn’t have to be a literal clock. Make it a deadline. A pregnancy. A diagnosis. Age. The ticking clock element adds automatic urgency to any story situation.
Make sure every scene has stakes: Every scene in your novel should contain a goal, a conflict, and a disaster or newly created obstacle. Something should be different by the end of the scene, either externally or internally. And if different means better, then in the next scene it should take a turn for the worse. Things can always get worse. Your reader is counting on that.
If things remain the same in a scene on both an external and internal level, you either need to rewrite it so that it contains change, or it should be summarized—or removed.
Don’t be afraid to tell the reader the stakes: Tell them again. And again. How many times are we reminded of what will happen if Frodo doesn’t throw the ring into Mount Doom? Several. Gandalf tells us. Galadriel tells us. We see the Orcs, the Uruk-hai, Saruman with his tragically long fingernails. We look into the palantirs. We KNOW. And we’ve already formed an attachment to the members of the fellowship. We don’t want this terrible thing to happen.
Consider the family motto of House Stark in Game of Thrones: “Winter is coming.” How many times do we hear that phrase? And we know that winter will be even worse than expected because we’ve seen the White Walkers.
Let Failure Be One of the Possible Outcomes: This is why George R. R. Martin unexpectedly kills off his heroes. He lets us know early and often that it can happen to anyone and he’s not afraid to do it.
Let your characters do stupid things, make bad decisions, take risks. Let things go wrong for them. Let your reader be afraid for them. As I often say to clients at the end of a chapter, give us something to worry about.
Keep a Leash on It: The end of the world sounds great as a threat, but it must make sense in your story. Not all stakes have to be that dramatic. The more you push the envelope here, the more you risk straining credulity and alienating your reader.
If there is a secret sauce to novel-writing, it’s this: give your readers a reason to care about your story and they will forego Netflix and Instagram and bedtime in order to keep turning pages.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.