Today's writing tip has to do with stakes. Not the ones you stick into vampires (although Secrets of the Dead has an interesting episode on where our ideas about vampires came from), and not the ones used in gambling. We're talking about the kind we use in stories. In this context, the stakes are what the characters stand to gain if they reach their goals and/or what they stand to lose if they don't reach those goals.
In the image at the beginning of this post, for example, the skateboarder has some fairly high stakes. If he doesn't pull off the trick he's attempting (i.e., achieve the goal), he'll fall. It'll definitely hurt, and he could break some bones or suffer a serious head injury. Wear your helmets, people!
In our work, the characters have to care about the stakes, but they can't be the only ones who do. To keep our readers engaged, we have to get them invested in the stakes, too.
For example, when I was first sketching out character ideas for my current WIP (work-in-progress), my concept for the protagonist's father went something like this:
King (Marcus): old goofball, uses an ear trumpet, but Patricia [the protagonist] loves him.
For a story that spent years with the working title The Evil Duck Movie, this character fit just fine. (My family still refers to this story by that title. 😳 🤦🏻♀️) But over time, the plot, title, and characters became a lot more serious. And I discovered that I had a stakes problem.
See, I'd worked out by now that Marcus was going to be kidnapped by his bitterest enemy in a bid to steal the throne, and Patricia would have to save both Marcus and the kingdom. But I realized that if I left Marcus as the deaf, clueless, slightly annoying guy I'd originally created, only Patricia would be concerned when he disappeared. The readers would likely think, "Oh, finally, he's gone. Good riddance."
So I had to go back and rewrite Marcus—and, as it turned out, Patricia—in earlier parts of the story. Now I'm working with an overprotective father and an impetuous daughter who drive each other crazy but won't tolerate anyone else messing with the other person. I think most readers have seen, if not been in, similar relationships in real life. That makes both characters more relatable. Thus, when Marcus disappears, Patricia goes after him regardless of the risks. And now that I've given the readers stakes they can invest in, hopefully they'll be rooting for her all the way.
So take a look at your WIP today and consider these questions:
What are the stakes in my story?
Do the stakes make sense? (For example, unless something really weird is going on, a character probably isn't going to be executed for flunking a math test.)
Do the stakes increase throughout the story? If not, how can I raise them along the way?
Will those stakes matter to my readers? If not, what can I do to get readers invested in them?
(Thanks to Pedro da Silva for sharing their work on Unsplash.)