Easy Ways to Up the Stakes

As you develop your Main Character, her motivation and her problem, you should be able to answer the question: what is at stake here? Although you want to tap into universal problems, the more specifically you answer, the more you can see just how high the stakes are and if they could be even higher.
Writing Tip for Today: By now, you may be familiar with the 3 questions: 1) what does my character want? 2) what are the obstacles? and 3) what is my character going to do to overcome obstacles and attain the goal? If you can see high tension in these stakes, great. But can those stakes be raised even more?

  • Ask So What? Donald Maass says as a literary agent he often asks writers, “if your character fails, so what?” The answer will help you decide if the stakes are high enough. If the answer is: my character will be sad/mad but there are no repercussions beyond that, it may be time to make the stakes affect other characters, other societies, other worlds. If you answer, “The world will end,” then your story must follow through on the threat. If you answer, “Main Character will die,” follow-through is vital or readers will not believe you. The answer to So What? should always have inner (psychological) and outer consequences.
  • Balance Your Conflicts. All “inner” conflicts make for dull or nonexistent action. All “outer” conflict feels shallow. A blend of both is usually necessary in order to create believable characters and worthwhile stakes. You might try listing all the various conflicts your story deals with and seeing how many are mostly psychological or emotional and how many are tangible and real. Try to balance the two factors.
  • Be Specific! When you say, “If character doesn’t meet goal, life as we know it will end,” it might entice a reader but YOU need to know exactly what this means. Are the Kling-ons going to take over? Is your character going to join a convent? If the bad guy’s caught, will the President be implicated? Map out your specific goals/consequences and then, if it doesn’t pass the “so what?” test, pile on the problems.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

6 comments on “Easy Ways to Up the Stakes

    • Anne,
      Yes! In fact in children’s fiction, it is VERY important that your MC’s stakes are high, and also that MC solves the major problem without much help from adults. Thanks for commenting and KEEP WRITING! ~Linda

  1. Hey Linda, great post! I’m always encouraging the folks in my writers group to do this. I just highlighted your post on the Eugene Writers Anonymous Forums – http://eugenewritersanonymous.icyboards.net/showthread.php?tid=76
    So that our members can see this advice as well, it’s important advice! Feel free to sign up (you won’t be able to see most of the posts on the forums without an account). We are still somewhat small, but we are growing, and there are some quality writers on there.

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