What are high stakes?
It’s the risk element at the heart of any story. What might be lost? What might be gained? What might be the consequences?
Within every story, the main characters often make choices that affect the path of the story and they are responsible for actions and reactions that create cause and effect. The consequence of those actions is that some risk is involved – whether that’s personal risk or public risk (i.e. risk to other people).
High stakes – or high risks – are also made tangible by the presence of conflict. Where there’s conflict, all manner of risks tend to emerge.
The reader wants to know what might be gained or lost within a story. Is survival at stake? Is it love? Or a loved one? Is it a house, something precious or something sentimental, perhaps? These are the things that mean most to your main character – something that resonates in all of us. What would you do to protect your family, your house, everything you have? And what would such loss mean?
High stakes indeed.
There is always something or someone at stake in every story; some that are deeply personal and some that puts other people in danger – and this friction causes all manner of conflict; just the thing you want for a great story.
Personal High Stakes
What means the most to you is probably not far different to what means the most to your characters. And if such things were at risk, it’s likely we’d all act in a way to try to do everything in our power to avoid the consequences. Your main characters will act in the same manner. An element of risk will change their behaviour; they will do things out of character, go to extremes or maybe even cross certain lines to achieve his or her goal.
By creating high stakes that are personal to your main character, you create immediacy with the reader, who will sympathise; they will understand the motives of your characters and they will become emotionally invested because they will know what such high stakes mean. Not only that, but the more realistic the stakes, the involved the reader will be.
Of course, the one thing that keeps the tension within high stakes is the huge and very real threat of failure. What if the hero fails to find the car bomb? What if he/she can’t find the cure for his/her son’s mystery illness? What if the father can’t save his son from the house fire? These are true high stakes.
But the idea of the high stakes relies on that realisation that it might go wrong and all will be lost. That’s the reality.
Public High Stakes
Personal high stakes are one thing, but public ones carry greater responsibility because it’s not just one person or one thing that your main character has to consider, but it could be the fate of many.
There are always innocent victims of conflict. Clever writers use public high stakes to crank up the tension and create extra conflict by making things worse for the people involved.
For example, imagine a hostage situation. The bad guy will start killing hostages unless your hero can try to talk him out of it, or perhaps disarm him. Or what if your main character is a soldier trying to defend a village from terrorists? Does he sacrifice some of them to reach his goal, or does he gamble those high stakes to try to protect the innocent women and children, while facing the inevitable threat of death, all by himself.
With public stakes, there is greater capacity for something to go wrong, to fail, and therefore the loss would also be greater. The emotional impact of this threat is more significant. The consequences are palpable and very real, and if writers can create this sense of realism, then the story will become even more compelling.
Change or Escalate the Stakes
Don’t be afraid to change the stakes to keep readers interested. There’s no reason why your main character can’t start out with one set of stakes and as the story progresses, more conflicts emerge and those stakes take on a different meaning altogether.
Protagonists and antagonists will share different high stakes, so when they are thrown together at various points in the story, their goals and motivations create huge conflict, because one will lose and the other will win. So whatever is at stake, there will be loss and there will be gains. Good or bad. One or the other.
The other thing writers can do is escalate the stakes, to make things almost impossible for their main character or to make the stakes such that the hero could lose everything if they make a fatal mistake or decision. Writers love nothing better than to make everything a whole lot worse for everyone, because the moment they do, they escalate the risk, and when that happens, the consequences become unfathomable, terrifying and very real.
The fundamental question is this: what is truly at stake for your protagonist? Is it worth the risk? The answer, of course, is yes, it’s always worth the risk. The higher the stakes, the greater the risk. Risk creates tension and conflict, which in turn creates emotions.
This is why your story needs high stakes. Without them, your main character will have nothing much to do and nothing much to care for.
Next week: How to engage the reader