Make Stakes Matter

Make Stakes Matter

Hey Everyone,

If it is your first time here, welcome to my verandah. If you’ve visited a Grab-n-Go before, welcome back to my verandah.

Either way, what you likely don’t know is this verandah is at my small village house up in the hills on the west side of the island of Cyprus. With cool weather, dirt roads, and the sea scrolling off in the distance, nothing-of-a-house became our getaway from the craziness of city life when the kids were little.

Now that the kids have gotten older, this house has become our sanctuary. Seriously, who would live in a crowded city of noise and smells and city stuff, when they can watch trees grow, hear roosters crow and say, “How do you do?” to the wandering goats? Not me.

And,  as my partner and I spend more of our time here, we’ve started fixing the old place up. You know, making it less of a camp and more of a home. We always have a project on the go, and a goal on the horizon.

Likely it is because of the advice my dad gave me long ago. He said, “Honey, you want to have a happy marriage, first be friends with your partner. Second always have a goal.” In short, he meant no matter what the day, month, year looks like never forget that you two have got to be working toward something together.

The Partner and I have heeded his advice

A goal-oriented couple, we always have a ton of things going on, but we always have common goals as well. It might be getting through the week or raising the kids or paying for their college education. It could be as simple as planning a party, or fixing up the house, or working on the old fishing boat we are restoring. Regardless, big or small, we are always working toward some goal together.

As writers we know. Or should know. How important goals are. We know story lives and dies on a character’s goal.

Without a goal the story we’re writing becomes series of events

While a what-happened-over-the-weekend even series might make for an interesting water-cooler story, it likely won’t capture a reader’s attention for three hundred plus pages.

Because character goals give stories substance, forward motion, and snag readers attention, every story for mass consumption: Books, movies, TV shows, have character or characters with a goal.

Readers or viewers engage in a story to see if the character reaches the goal.

Think about it: In all of the novels or movies or TV series you’ve watched or read, the characters always have a goal.

  • In the typical crime series, the character/s goal is to solve the crime. Catch the bad guy.
  • In a love story, the character may want to be happy, successful, want a relationship, never want a relationship.
  • In a coming of age, the character wants to grow up, have a boyfriend, get a first kiss, understand life.
  • In an action movie, the hero/ine wants to save the world, defeat the evildoer.

Let’s look at some real life examples

  • In Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, the female protagonist, Kate Connelly wants to race in the Scorpio Races (secretly she wanted to win).
  • In the God Father, the hero Michael Corleone wants not to become part of his father’s mafia business.
  • In The Fugitive, by Roy Huggins,  the hero wants to find out who killed his wife.
  • In Steven King’s Shawshank Redemption, the hero wants out of prison. (By the way, not the point of view character)
  • In J.K Rowling’s  Harry Potter, Harry wants to belong.
  • In Julie Garwood’s The Secret the heroine never wants her new husband to find out who her father is.
  • Where the World Ends, Geraldine McCaughrean hero wants to survive.
  • Laurie Halse Anderson’s The impossible Knife of Memory, the character wants to forget the past. 

All stories have a character with a goal because the goal is the beginning of reader investment.

However, a goal is not enough.

Why the character wants the goal is a fundamental part of the reading equation.

The why, also called the motivation gives the reader a reason to care.

For example:  If the character wants to go out on Friday night and get wasted, that’s fine, but if she wants to get wasted because she is a doctor, who has just lost her first patient and was fired, and feels such remorse, that she wants to kill herself, but doesn’t feel she will have the courage without being drunk, the readers  become far more invested.

Think of it this way. The goal snags readers attention. The motivation increases the investment but if that’s all you got, likely the reader will not stay hooked.

It’s what is at stake that will hook your reader for the long-haul.

Writer and teacher James Scott Bell says these stakes must be big, life and death big. All stories must have a death at the heat of them.  

Don’t start shouting and listing off movies where the characters are never at risk of dying. I know.  But just because a character isn’t in danger of leaving this world doesn’t mean she doesn’t face a death stake.

According to Bell there are three types of death stakes; professional, emotional death and physical.

Think about it: Any story you have ever watched or read have one, if not more of these deaths at stake.

The cop who wants to catch the killer faces professional death. The man who wants a lover faces emotional death. The fight-evil hero faces physical death.  

Example: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Elizabeth wants a life where she respects her partner. If she doesn’t get that she will die, at least on an emotional and likely on a professional level. What would have happened if she married the Mr. Collins?  

Give it a Go

  • With this idea of death-stakes in mind, look at three books you’ve read.
  • What do the characters want?
    Why—the motivation?
  • What type of death is at stake?
  • The more deaths, the more tension.

Example: Scorpio Races.

Example: Scorpio Races

 Puck wants to run in the Scorpio Races (Goal) because she wants to keep her family together. (Motivation)

The stakes are:

  • Professional: She is supposed to keep her family together.
  • Emotional: She won’t know who she is if she is not part of the Connelly family.
  • Physical: The races are dying dangerous.

A master at storytelling, Stiefvater didn’t scrimp on the death-stakes and as a result, there is tension and conflict and emotional power in every single scene.

Give it a Go: Your story

Give it a go: Your story.

  • Write down your characters single overriding goal and motivation
    • Character wants……. Because…

A word about motivation: The motivation needs to be something important to the character on an emotional level, that will lead you to the depths of character as well as the depths of stakes.

  • So if your character doesn’t get what he wants, what happens? What is at stake. If it isn’t a death stake, it simply isn’t big enough to carry the power to rivet your reader to the page.
    • Do you have more than one?
    • Should you have more than one?
    • If you had to have more than one (gun to the head kind of thing) What would you include?
      • Go wild, go crazy. Free write another death stake. How and where could you weave that storyline into your work in progress.  
  • Would upping a single stake or multiple stakes add tension and reader investment to your story.
  • If the answer is yes, why not go for it?
  • Then sit back and compare your two stories.
  • Which do you like better?

There you have it! Make the stakes matter and up the tension and empower the read.

Want to share how it went for you? I’d love to hear.

Mucho love,


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