One Cannot Live on Stakes Alone

I’m very good at puns.

So, stakes. Stakes are yet another thing involved in novel writing that are VERY VERY IMPORTANT. Stakes are usually the thing you discover you need after you’ve spent countless months on a draft and maybe you don’t quite understand what they are or why you need them, all you know is that you do and at this point, the list of things you need to do for your novel has gotten longer than a grocery list for a family of ten and you are just about ready to throw your laptop across the room.

No? That’s just me? Alright, then.

To tell you the truth, it took me longer than I’d like to admit to really “get” stakes, to really understand what they are and why they’re so important. But once I did, I fell in love. I fell in love so much that “What are the stakes?” is the first thing I ask myself when I read a book, and I’m not happy unless I can answer it. I fell in love so much that I developed theories about stakes. Theories that are probably not revolutionary to anyone but me, but that make me feel smart for the brief window of time that I don’t go on the Internet and figure out everyone already knew this, so where the heck was I when the rest of humanity was figuring it out and simultaneously losing the need for tails?

Well, now I know. You need stakes. And more than that, you need obstacles. Stakes and obstacles are the literary equivalent of “between a rock and a hard place.” That’s where you want your character to be. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. And if you only have one, you have a problem.

Stakes are what is lost if your protagonist doesn’t succeed. Obstacles are the blocks on your protagonist’s path to success. I picture these on a scale.

You want to keep that scale balanced. In other words, what might be lost if the protagonist doesn’t succeed has to be equally as frightening as the obstacles in front of them. They don’t have to be the same, but they have to be balanced.

Think about the movie Jaws. Focusing on Chief Brody, what does he want? He wants to kill the shark. What are the obstacles in his path? The shark is big and deadly and could kill him pretty easily. What are the stakes? If he doesn’t kill the shark, more people in the town he’s in charge of keeping safe will die.

jaws_swims_behind_chief_brody
And yet, he’s the picture of calm.

 

Damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. They’re not exactly the same. His personal life is only at risk in terms of the obstacles (he doesn’t intend to go in the water himself otherwise), but they are equally scary. Not to say your stakes and obstacles need to be terrifying, but they should be on par with each other.

Now imagine that one of those things was taken away, or made lesser. Imagine that instead of the shark killing people if Brody does NOT act, it’ll probably just swim away or stop eating people. In other words, the obstacles are heavy, but the stakes are light.

Why would you want Brody to risk his life in that scenario? Even if the shark is dangerous, if there was no evidence that it would continue to harm people if he didn’t act, if we were only suspicious that it would or if there was the probability that it would eventually stop, we’d have no reason to cheer him on. No matter how compelling the shark-hunting scenes, we’d constantly be yelling at the screen and telling him to go home.

Now imagine what would happen if we took away the obstacles, giving way more weight to the stakes.

If we do that, the threat to the townspeople is very real, but Brody and the others don’t have much to do to kill the shark. Just harpoon it a few times, or throw some poisoned fish in the river, or figure out that oxygen tank trick way earlier and with less fanfare.

602px-Jaws-Garand-5
Boy, I’m sure glad this went exactly the way we planned it and nobody in the hunting party died.

 

That’s a surefire recipe for bo-o-o-ring.

Take a look at most novels and movies and you’ll see a similar formula. The stakes and the obstacles are both on the same level, so you’re both fearful of what will happen if the protagonist succeeds, and what will happen if they don’t. It keeps you invested in the book. Writers don’t do this because everyone does and they’re just going with the crowd. They do it because it’s how we keep the reader or viewer invested. It’s how we keep them caring.

So, what are YOUR stakes? What are your obstacles? Are they sufficient enough to keep the reader turning the pages? Will they lie awake at night, worrying about what will happen, or will they either be screaming at your protagonist to go home and make some tea or feeling cheated because the stakes were high but the path to the goal was paved with rainbows and lollipops?

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Ellar Cooper
    Feb 04, 2014 @ 19:48:45

    Oh, stakes. They are not my best friend ever, but I’m working on them…and working on them…and maybe one day we’ll at least be on speaking terms…

    Reply

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