As H. R. D’Costa points out in this article, one of the best marketing strategies for authors is to write books that are gripping page-turners. In this post, she explains how story stakes are a great way to do that.
A reader just bought your book.
But that’s not your ultimate goal, not really.
Not when you want a writing career, which is built on multiple sales.
Your ultimate goal is for your pages to be so good that readers not only buy your other books, but also recommend your books to their friends.
As Ryan Holiday explains in his Creative Penn interview about how to make a book a perennial seller: “If you write a book that does a job for people and you get it out to a large enough audience, what then happens is that that audience continues to pass that book along…if you do it right, your book is an advertisement for itself, and each person that reads it generates more readers.”
So, how do you write the kind of novel that’ll effortlessly generate more readers for you?
Many factors go into creating a gripping story, so there are many different ways to answer this question. One of these factors—the one we’re going to focus on today—is massively important. Unfortunately, it’s often overlooked by authors. What is that factor?
What Are Story Stakes? (And How Can They Help Me Sell More Books?)
Stakes are the negative consequences of failure.
If your protagonist fails to achieve his goal, then bad things will happen. (Of course, the definition of bad will vary according to genre.)
Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, let me make two disclaimers:
(1) I tend to use masculine nouns and pronouns. But rest assured, as a female, I know females make amazing protagonists!
(2) I also tend to use film examples because they are more universal. But the principles behind the examples can be applied by novelists and screenwriters alike.
Getting back to story stakes: readers have to know how your protagonist avoids those negative consequences of failure.
In other words, stakes put readers under tension. The only way to relieve this tension is to…keep on turning the pages of your story.
Voila, reader glue.
That’s not all. Done well, story stakes create an intense emotional experience—the kind that gets readers to not only finish your book, but also recommend it to others…
…the kind of experience that helps your book to sell itself.
A 4-Step Blueprint to Use Story Stakes Like a Pro
By now, you’re probably convinced about the value of story stakes, which means you’ll want to know how to use them to create the stickiest reader glue.
Here is a quick-action blueprint to get you started. It has four steps:
- Establish what the stakes are.
- Form a bond between readers and the stakes.
- Remind readers about the stakes.
- Raise the stakes.
Follow this blueprint, and you’ll have a solid plan to skillfully integrate story stakes into your next novel (or screenplay). If you’d like to go deeper, check out my writing guide Story Stakes.
For now, let’s take a closer look at each step in your story stake blueprint:
Step #1: Establish the Stakes
Your first step toward masterful story stakes is to determine what the stakes are.
This may seem like it’s so obvious, it’s not even worth mentioning. Sure, sometimes, that may be true.
If you come up with an idea like Speed—a crowded city bus will explode if the bus goes below 50 mph—then you’d automatically know the stakes of your story. They come part and parcel with your premise. If the protagonist fails, then the passengers on the bus will die.
Same goes for “save the world” plots, as in JF Penn’s Ark of Blood, where the protagonist must discover the Ark of the Covenant in order to prevent a “devastating Holy War.”
But in other cases, the stakes might not be readily apparent—and if you don’t stop to follow step #1 of your story stake blueprint, you’ll overlook them.
Oftentimes, this occurs when you come up with an intriguing situation, and get lost in the coolness of it all.
If you came up with an idea like that for a novel, you might jump into the plot—planning how Cobb is going to acquire his crew and how they’re going to pull off the “reverse” heist—without ever stopping to think about the stakes.
Despite the exciting action and uniqueness of your premise, your story wouldn’t be terribly engaging because there’s no reason for readers to care about what happens. They’d probably abandon it somewhere around the middle.
In the film, the man who hires Cobb did so in order to prevent a global monopoly on oil. In terms of story stakes, these are a yawn fest. They’re not evocative enough.
Fortunately, emotional engagement comes from another source: Cobb’s motivation for accepting the job. If he succeeds, he’ll be reunited with his children.
I classify these as stakes of access (technically, a variation of them). In the traditional version, if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal, he will lose access to a place or person that he cherishes. These stakes are one of my favorites. I encourage you to test them out, especially for plots where the stakes traditionally involve saving the world or rescuing hostages.
A special note for romance novelists: if the hero and heroine don’t end up together, then they’re going to be extremely unhappy. In some romances (not all, mind you), these are the only stakes in the story.
Readers are only going to care about this potentially unhappy future to the degree that they like the hero and heroine. What am I getting at?
In this situation, likeability and the stakes are so intertwined, you can almost consider them one and the same. Likeability is basically holding the whole house of cards together here, so be careful.
In a different situation, a careless word by your hero or heroine might not mean much. But in this one, it can lead to a “meh” reaction from readers—assuming they even finish your book.
If you’re having difficulty coming up with stakes for your story, check out this printable list of 11 types of story stakes.
Otherwise, you’re ready for…
Step #2: Form a Bond Between Readers and the Stakes
Now that you know what the stakes are, it’s time to introduce them to readers. More specifically, it’s time to get readers to bond with your story stakes.
Why is this important? This bond is a modulating factor.
Think of modulating factors as knobs on a stereo system. When modulating factors are used poorly (or perhaps not at all), then the emotional intensity of your stakes will be muted. They won’t be powerful enough to keep readers glued to your pages.
Conversely, when you use modulating factors with skill, you turn up the emotional volume. This gives your story an edge, enabling you to easily distinguish your kidnapping plot, for example, from the rest—and eclipse the competition.
Here’s another benefit of this particular modulating factor. By creating a bond between readers and the stakes, you’re a cultivating a relationship that’s separate from readers’ relationship with the protagonist.
This comes in handy when you’re writing a story with an unlikeable hero or morally dubious plot. Despite the distance created by these characteristics, readers can still remain emotionally close to your story due to their bond with the stakes.
How do you form a bond between readers and the story stakes?
These two guidelines will serve you well:
- At the beginning of your story, make sure your readers spend meaningful time with the stakes.
- Personalize this experience.
Let me show you what I mean with a couple of examples.
Say your stakes involve the fate of a location. Spend time in this location. Make your readers fall in love with it, and with its people.
However, when you do this, focus on a specific area or population within the setting.
All of Middle-earth is jeopardized in the Lord of the Rings. But in the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, emphasis is placed upon one place in particular: the Shire (which, you’ll note, is also the place closest to the heart of Frodo, the central protagonist).
If your stakes involve a group of hostages, give readers the opportunity to get to know one or two of them. In Miss Congeniality, all of the beauty pageant contestants are under threat. But the film focuses on a subset of this larger group.
Moreover, within this subset, the film focuses on one girl in particular: Miss Rhode Island, who’s the most guileless of the bunch. (This naïveté actually evokes another modulating factor, but we don’t have time to get into that!)
Did you notice something?
Point of view (POV) plays a big role in what you can do with this modulating factor. If you’re writing in third person, there’s no problem.
If you’re writing in first person, and your protagonist interacts with the stakes, then readers can get to know the stakes through the protagonist’s POV.
However, sometimes, due to the nature of a story, this is impossible. Your protagonist would never interact with the stakes (before the climax). In this case, seriously consider changing POVs from first to third.
Doing so enables you to easily:
- create a bond between readers and the stakes
- harness the power of dramatic irony
- remind readers about the stakes
Speaking of stake reminders, conveniently that’s what the next step in your story stake blueprint is all about…
Step #3: Remind Readers About the Stakes
Once you’ve chosen solid categories and keywords for your novel, you can basically forget about them. (Not forever, but for a good long while.)
Story stakes are not like that.
After the bond between readers and the stakes has been created, it can’t be forgotten. It must be maintained. Otherwise, it will evaporate over the course of your story.
Hence, readers aren’t going to be as emotionally invested in the climax, which determines the fate of the stakes once and for all.
Subplots built around the stakes make excellent reminders. As you braid subplot strands with the main plot, you’ll naturally bring the stakes to the forefront of your story.
If you can’t use a subplot for this purpose, don’t fret! There are other options like:
- symbolic reminders
- surrogate reminders
Symbolic reminders are exactly what they sound like. The protagonist periodically brings out a concrete object (usually something small and portable) that represents the stakes. The symbol could be a:
- wedding ring (Training Day)
- bejeweled denim jacket (Taken)
- toy soldier (The Patriot)
- family photograph (Back to the Future)
I particularly like the use of the photograph in Back to the Future because it plays double-duty. It doesn’t just remind audiences what the stakes are, it also functions as a ticking clock that amplifies the tension.
Surrogate reminders are another way to keep the stakes “top of mind.” This is when readers experience the negative consequences of failure happening to someone else (not the actual stakes driving the story).
In a romance novel or women’s fiction, the heroine might have a coffee date with an ex-colleague who was recently fired. If the protagonist fails to bring in a deep-pocketed client, she’ll end up just like her friend—without a job.
Before we move on to the final step of your story stake blueprint, I just want to share a neat way to remember steps #3 and #4: use the acronym R&R.
But instead of rest and relaxation, you’re reminding readers about the stakes—and raising the stakes…
…which brings us to—
Step #4: Raise the Stakes
So, you’ve followed step #1, and established your story stakes.
You’ve formed a bond between readers and the stakes, and maintained that bond too.
Now comes the hard part. Because as bad as the negative consequences are, you’ve got to find a way to make them even worse. You’ve got to raise the stakes.
Why? This generates escalation—another element that’s essential to creating a gripping plot.
In a romance, raising the stakes might mean increasing the degree to which your protagonists are invested in the relationship.
At the beginning of your novel, their relationship may be confined to a flirtatious level. But at the midpoint, where you raise the stakes, no more. At the midpoint, your hero and heroine run the risk of real heartache.
Another possibility: have your protagonist make a sacrifice.
For example, say your heroine has a side hustle developing computer apps, and her Ivy Leaguer parents were poised to invest in her business—until they learned about her relationship with the hero, who’s blue-collar.
Do you see how this puts more on the line at the climax, when the heroine and hero are supposed to get back together?
If the heroine fails to win back the hero, she’ll not only be unhappy. She will have also turned her back on easy startup money in vain.
She will have made a sacrifice—and received nothing but misery for it.
Fearing this, readers are going to root even harder for the heroine to succeed—and the climax of your romance novel should be even more satisfying.
What about stories with physical danger and thrills? The kind that JF Penn writes, for instance. How to raise the stakes then?
Here’s a strategy that’s tried and true: go from the general to the personal.
If the stakes were initially about saving the world (general stakes), by the end of the story, they should also be about saving the life (or freedom, etc.) of someone meaningful to the protagonist (personal stakes).
Many writers are resistant to this idea. They think it’s overdone. Maybe so. But it’s done oh-so frequently for a reason. Consider these two scenarios:
Scenario #1: The protagonist has to race against time to prevent a natural disaster from destroying a city.
Scenario #2: The protagonist has to race against time to prevent a natural disaster from destroying a city—to where his son, on a backpacking adventure with his friends, took a last-minute detour.
Which of these do you think has greater potential to keep readers glued to the pages?
I rest my case. 🙂
For easy reference, here is your 4-step story stake blueprint once again:
- Establish the stakes.
- Form a bond between readers and the stakes.
- Remind readers about the stakes.
- Raise the stakes.
Start integrating stakes into your story with this blueprint, and you’ll see how much richer your story will become (especially if you master the art of raising the stakes).
As we both know, there is no magic bullet for publishing success. But out of everything out there…stakes come pretty close. Unlike a 99-cent promotion or a swoon-worthy book cover, stakes can compel readers to stay up all night to finish your book.
With that kind of experience, readers transform into raving fans—the bedrock of a long and thriving writing career.
Sounds pretty magical to me!
Have you spent time thinking about the stakes at play in your books? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa (a.k.a. HRD) is an author and writing coach who specializes in story structure and story stakes.
Known for her “deep dive” instruction style, she is the author of eight writing guides including Sizzling Story Outlines and Story Stakes, which one Amazon reviewer described as “a must-have in your top 10 books on writing.”
For practical, actionable writing tips designed to help you keep readers glued to your pages, visit her website scribemeetsworld.com, which is also home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet (downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world).