It’s been a while since I posted a blog! I’m back and ready to give some more writing advice. This topic came up with one of my editing clients (click here to see more about my editorial services!) and I thought it would make for a fun blog.
As a writer, you’ve probably heard that you need to up the stakes in your project. It’s a pretty common critique, because stakes are what make a reader want to read your book, and if a reader doesn’t want to read, why would anyone want to publish it?
So, what exactly are stakes? In your book, the stakes are literally what is at stake for the characters. (Okay, ‘stake’ doesn’t even feel like a word anymore, but I’m going to keep going.) If the main character succeeds, what will they gain? More importantly, what will happen if they fail? How would it hurt them? How would it hurt (or help!) the people around them?
A common misconception is that stakes always have to be Big. They don’t!
Of course, if you’re writing a high fantasy, then yeah, you should have really big world-ending stakes (as well as really small, world-ending stakes).
But, what about your YA romance? The two main characters getting together probably won’t save the world. But, it could save their world. If they don’t get together, they’ll miss out on a great relationship, lose a great friend, or it’ll save them from heartbreak later on. These are small things, aren’t they? Even so, they’re still stakes. It still matters.
Of course, there are going to be a ton of stakes throughout your book. There’s the main plot, which should have the highest stakes, and then a bunch of sub plots, which each have stakes of their own. Every character, even the minor ones, should have something they’re working towards, some end goal, and some reason they need to reach that goal (and consequences if they don’t!).
The stakes also have to matter, just like everything in the story. I’m a big fan of chopping as an editor, and it’s incredibly hard, but it makes for a clean, tight, and strong story. If you have something that can be easily cut without changing the story, that’s not good in terms of stakes. Stakes have to be something the reader believes in, and something important enough to hold on to. If you can cut it, it’s not important enough!
Unfortunately, this isn’t easy. If it was, you wouldn’t have to worry about it!
When I’m editing, one of my favorite things to do is ask questions, because I think it helps shape the story. I do it when I’m writing too! Even when I’m writing a blog post, I’ll ask myself, what do I want to say? What do I want readers to get from this? Why do I use so many exclamation points?
So, while you’re writing, or editing, ask yourself some of these questions:
Why is the character doing this? Why does it matter?
Where will the character be if they succeed? If they fail?
How does it impact those around the character? Who else will suffer, or gain, from the outcome?
If I remove this, how will it impact the character? Do they need to be doing this? Is it vital to the story?
Where does the character start, and where do they end? How did every choice they made up until now lead them from A to B?
If you want a really fun exercise (one I highly recommend!) try doing this from the character’s POV. Answer the questions based on what your MC would say. This can help you with your voice, and it also helps with stakes. The character has to know what they’re up against, and what will happen if they win or lose!
I hope this helps you to dive into your stakes!
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