1. Story As Game: Why Stakes Matter To Us
Storytelling isn’t a game, except when it is. Part of what keeps us coming back to play a game is part of what keeps us coming back to read a story. In a game, we want to beat the odds, duck the punches, cut the balls off our enemies, and play the royal flush to win the pot of gold coins from that shitty little leprechaun — and in that game, we are frustrated by conflict and lost battles and that can push us to play again with greater verve and viciousness. A story isn’t quite so straightforward, but the analogs are there: we see the protagonists and we want them to beat odds, duck punches, cut balls, and steal from shitty little leprechauns. We are further frustrated by the conflicts and the lost battles and so we read on with faster flips of the page.
2. Win, Lose, Or Draw
As in a game, it is crucial we know what is to be gained or lost in the battle or during the journey. Literally, what is at stake? Life? Love? Money? A precious plot of land? The loyalty of an old friend? A wish? A curse? The whole world? Galaxy? Universe? All of time itself trapped in a magic snowglobe held in in the paws of a jaunty hedgehog? Further, what are the conditions of victory? What will mean loss? These don’t need to be perfectly clear (nor must they be correct), but both reader and character should be able to guess at them, even if the guess is wrong.
3. The Stakes Damn Well Better Matter To The Characters
The characters are the engine that drives any story, and if the stakes don’t mean shit to the characters, the story becomes artificial — a cardboard story blown over in the most inconsequential of breezes. Why do they care? If they don’t give a damn, why will we?
4. Wants, Needs, Fears
If we envision the stakes as that which pins the characters to the story, we can further conjure more metaphorical story-whimsy and assume that the cord that tethers them to the stakes are their wants, needs, and fears. Every character has these: Victor fears the loss of his child. Henrietta wants nothing more than to get home and watch the new SyFy original movie, EELVALANCHE. Bob needs bath salts. For Victor, the stakes stop there: as the detective battles his nemesis, the space-rending godborn serial killer known as John Henry Zeus, his son is kidnapped and so his fear — and the stakes surrounding that fear — are made manifest. Henrietta’s stakes go deeper than her professed want: by not seeing Eelvalanche, she won’t have anything to talk about at work tomorrow, and the jerk she likes, Dave, won’t respect her, and she’ll continue on feeling alone and loveless with her house of cats. Henrietta’s stakes are a complicated, tangled skein of yarn. Bob, on the other hand, wants bath salts, and if he doesn’t get them, he’ll eat your face. In that story, there’s your stakes: BOB GONNA EAT YOUR FACE. Then again, once he gets his bath salts, he’s probably gonna eat your face anyway, so.
5. Chart The Stakes For Individual Characters
Every character won’t necessarily gain and lose the same things in a story. What’s fascinating is when you pit the stakes of one character against the stakes of another (and one might argue this is exactly what creates the relationship between a protagonist and an antagonist). A gain for one is a loss for the other. The expert thief Billy Bold wants to steal Picasso’s lost painting, The Monkeys of Pamplona, as his last score so he can leave the money to his daughter before he dies of face cancer. But Detective Jane Jermagernsern knows she’ll lose her job and her pension if she can’t catch Billy before he pulls off the heist. Their stakes oppose one another.
6. Personal And Internal Versus Impersonal And External
Stakes can be internal/personal — meaning, they relate directly to the character herself and her emotional investment in the story’s stakes is what’s on the line. Stakes can also be impersonal/external — meaning, they relate to a larger conflict involving but also well-beyond the character’s nature and demeanor. A smaller (and/or more literary) story likely has at its core stakes that are personal and internal (“If I don’t quit drinking, I’m going to die”). Genre work may focuses more on impersonal and external (“The fate of the Royal Galactic Star Imperium is in my hands!”). If you want my opinion (and if you don’t, why are you here?!): a mix is best.
7. The Small Story Is Larger Than The Big Story
It’s all well and good to have some manner of super-mega-uh-oh world-ending stakes on the line — “THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE IS UPON US, AND IF WE DON’T ACT LIKE HEROES WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND BURIED UNDER THE ALPACA’S BLEATING REIGN” — but stakes mean more to us as the audience when the stakes mean more to the character. It’s not just about offering a mix of personal and impersonal stakes — it’s about braiding the personal stakes into the impersonal ones. The Alpacapocalypse matters because the protagonist’s own daughter is at the heart of the Alpaca Invasion Staging Ground and he must descend into the Deadly Alpaca Urban Zone to rescue her. He’s dealing with the larger conflict in order to address his own personal stakes.
8. Stakes Tied To, But Different From, Goals And Conflicts
Let’s say I’m having a dinner party. My goal is to cook dinner and have a successful party. It’s a pretty straightforward goal. The stakes are all the consequences of me meeting, exceeding, or falling short of my goal. It’s all the stuff attached to but outside the goal. If I fuck up the dinner party, your happiness during those two hours is on the line. So too is my social standing. And my own happiness and success. And maybe your physical health just in case I forget that I’m not supposed to jizz in the bean dip. The conflicts are all the things that block me from my goals and put the stakes at risk. The oven breaks. I burn the potatoes. The blender gains sentience and tries to eat my hands. The Devil shows up as an unexpected party guest. You know: the usual.
9. What This Means For Plot
We like to talk about plot as if it’s this thing that the storyteller installs into a story — but that’s like trying to install a person’s skeleton after they’re already born. The plot is an integral, organic part of the story; it grows as the story grows. Plot is people. Or, more specifically, plot is the result of characters making choices and acting on those choices. Or, even more specifically, plot is the expression of characters aware of the stakes and who form goals in response to those stakes (correctly or incorrectly) and who attempt to overcome conflicts in service to those goals. It gets more complex than this, of course — but we’ll talk more about that in a sec.
10. Stakes Force Choice
Put a different way, it’s important to see how the story’s stakes — meaning, what’s on the line for the characters or even the world — force choices from the story’s characters. Consequences are in play. Things are in flux. Risk is mounting. Goals must be formed. Choices must be made.
11. Dial Up The Stakes, Tighten The Tension
The larger the payout, the greater the threat, the higher the stakes. And the higher the stakes, the greater the tension for the characters — and, by proxy, the audience.
12. Positive Stakes: The Win
A story with positive stakes suggests that a successful outcome will be a gain: victory over the bad guys, a magic sword, a big score, romantic love, a fire-breathing ice-farting hell-pony.
13. Negative Stakes: The Loss
A story with negative stakes suggests that a successful outcome will merely be avoiding further loss or exploring/exploiting the losses that have already happened: forestalling the apocalypse, solving a murder, killing a mad king to end his reign, revenge over a bag of stolen Funions.
14. A Complicated Tapestry
Many stories are a combination of positive and negative stakes — a mix of win and lose conditions. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this: we have a mix of “I want to be the king!” versus “The kingdom is in danger by outside forces!” Some characters are trying very hard to gain, whether they’re gaining the throne or a bride or just big bags of sweet Westerosi gold. Others are trying to stave off White Walkers or frankly just fucking survive (because man, life in Westeros is just one iron-gloved nut-punch after the other). Game of Thrones offers a wild mix of stakes on the line — positive and negative, internal and external.
15. Escalating The Stakes
In a poker game, you may be called to pony up more cash to stay in the game, and that’s true of storytelling, too. As the story goes along, you put more on the line. More to win. More to lose. Bigger reward. Higher risk. Sometimes we escalate the stakes so much that by the end it appears that the protagonist must succeed with an unwinnable hand — which challenges both storyteller and audience with a sucker-punch made of pure tension. “You thought you were just fighting to save your life? Now it’s the life of your daughter. Oh! Now it’s all of Los Angeles. NOW IT’S THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE.” *bleat bleat bleat*
16. Complicating The Stakes
We can escalate stakes by complicating them and we have at our disposal many ways to cruelly complicate those stakes. A character can complicate the stakes by making bad choices or by making choices with unexpected outcomes (“Yes, you killed the Evil Lord Thrang, but now there’s a power vacuum in the Court of Supervillains that threatens to destroy the Eastern Seaboard you foolish jackanape.”) Or you can complicate the stakes by forcing stakes to oppose one another — if Captain Shinypants saves his true love, he’ll be sacrificing New York City. But if he saves the millions of New York City, he’ll lose the love of his life, Jacinda Shimmyfeather. Competing complicated stakes for characters to make competing complicated choices.
17. Changing The Stakes
You can change the stakes as you go. The character may resolve a conflict and thus “cash out” one set of stakes (something lost and/or something gained). A show like Breaking Bad puts this into play quite nicely (uh, spoiler warning, 3… 2… 1…): at the fore of the series, the stakes are Walt’s life and his family’s finances thanks to his costly and debilitating lung cancer. But fate and his burgeoning meth empire (“methpire?” or is that a meth-addled vampire?) answers the problem and grants Walt a clear win — the cancer is gone, his bills are paid. But new stakes always fill the vacuum of the old: now the stakes are his family, his freedom, his “business,” and most troubling of all, his wildly spinning moral compass.
18. Never, Ever Remove The Stakes
If you remove the stakes from the story, it’s like stealing food from a toddler. It’s like smothering a pretty little kitten with a pillow. Removing the stakes robs a story of tension — it guts it of its urgency, it thieves the narrative impulsion from the characters and the audience. It’s a flabby floppy body with no bone, no muscle. Don’t suck the oxygen out of the room. Don’t make Story Hulk angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Because then he’ll tell you a really boring story, then beat you to death with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
19. Sub-Plotty Stakes
A series of lesser stakes involving the protagonist or the supporting characters can be used as the basis for sub-plots inside your story. And sub-plots are, of course, plot threads that have to do with submarines. *is handed a note* I mean, sub-plots have to do with the obtaining of submarine sandwiches *is handed another note* JESUS FINE, I mean, sub-plots are smaller storylines that weave in and out of the main plot. *is handed a final note* Aww, I love you too.
20. Think About What’s At Stake In Each Scene
Stakes smaller than those able to prop up subplots — let’s call ’em “micro-stakes” — can instead be used to support a scene. When entering a scene, you should ask: “What are the stakes here?” The characters in any given scene are here in the scene consciously or unconsciously trying to create a particular outcome for themselves or for the world around them. Something is on the table to be won or lost: a dinner date, a sexual encounter, a piece of critical information, a phial of enchanted tears from a constipated elf. The stakes needn’t be resolved by the end of the scene, and may carry forward to other scenes, but do enough of this and you might start seeing one of those sub-plots I was talking about…
21. Hell, Let’s Throw Dialogue In There, Too
Dialogue can also have stakes. In real life we communicate for all kinds of reasons — to fill the air with sound, to shoot the proverbial shit, the relay a few quick details about shopping lists or bowel movements — but fiction isn’t meant to necessarily encapsulate that kind of dialogue. Dialogue in a story is purposeful: it’s conversation held captive and put on display for a reason. Dialogue in this way is frequently like a game, a kind of verbal sparring match between two or more participants. Again: things to lose, things to gain. Someone wants information. Or to psyche someone out. Or to convey a threat. Purpose. Intent. Conflict. Goals. Steaks on the table. *is handed another note* FINE I MEAN STAKES GOD YOU’RE SO ANNOYING
22. More On The Line Than The Characters Realize
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something one or several characters do not. The stakes can be a part of this equation and this can significantly increase tension — we know that if the character doesn’t Unscramble the Widget and Decipher the Cipher, then All Hope Will Be Motherfucking Lost, but the character doesn’t yet realize that. Consider too a kind of “reversed stakes,” where what the character hopes to gain is something the audience knows would be bad fucking news — drugs, a gun, revenge, an angry coked-up screech owl.
23. Stakes Must Be Believable And Interesting
Do I need to explain that? I don’t really think so.
24. The Stakes Can Be On The Table Long Before The Story Begins
We don’t need the stakes to bloom with the story. They can have been in play for a very long time. This is the power of beginning a story as late as you can, in medias res — we jump in with the slow realization that this struggle has been in play for a while, and we’re about to witness how it all shakes out. We’re not watching a slow poker game from the start. We’re jumping in just as it’s getting real interesting — just as conflict mounts.
25. We Have To Know The Stakes
The audience has to know the stakes, and they have to know them sooner rather than later. The longer we go without being made to understand the stakes, the more lost we feel in terms of understanding the story and the characters’ motivations for interfacing with that story. Why do they struggle? Why take the journey? The stakes are key. Look at it this way: buried deep in every story’s program is an if/then statement. If X, then Y. If our hero defeats the demon, her soul is safe. If our antihero can’t recover the drugs, the crime lord will take his nuts as a prize. If this, then that. Cause, effect. Quest, treasure. Truth, consequence. What are the stakes? What’s on the table? What can be won, what may be lost?
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