Stakes in Writing: In-Depth Guide for a Book’s Tension Setter

Posted on Dec 7, 2023

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We all know novels and stories in general are a hodgepodge of many techniques and methods and elements all at play at once. We do many of these things naturally, but others we have to learn and tweak in order to tell the story we want to tell. The stakes in writing is one of these elements.

We’ve all felt the effects of a book’s stakes when reading. It’s what causes the anxiety, the tension, and the desire to keep reading to see how the main character handles everything. It’s also what makes us root for the characters to succeed in their goals.

But how do you actually set the stakes in a way that keeps the readers coming back for more? There’s a bit of strategy to it, and I’ll teach you how in this post.

Here’s what you’ll learn about stakes in writing:

  1. Definition + Examples
  2. Why are stakes used?
  3. High Stakes VS Low Stakes
  4. Create & Set the Stakes
  5. Raise the Stakes
  6. Can you change the stakes?

What are the stakes in writing?

The stakes in writing are what can be lost if the characters don’t succeed in their goal. Essentially, it’s what’s at stake when they take any action to further or solve the story’s plot.

In any story, the main character (or more than one in some epic fantasy and sci-fi cases) has to fulfill some sort of plot. By taking actions and furthering the plot, conflict arises. Oftentimes, in order for the main character to proceed in the plot, they have to make decisions, always at the cost or benefit of something.

That something is the stakes.

Some common stakes in writing are:

  • losing a life
  • loss of a loved one’s life
  • losing out on a job or position in something
  • being remembered for nothing (or for something terrible)
  • going crazy (often a stake for using magic in fantasy)
  • loss of love
  • losing a friendship
  • freedom or societal/social standing
  • going to jail
  • justice
  • inheriting something: money, country/ruling rights, land, etc.

Take any book you’ve read and ask yourself “what was the main character worried about throughout the plot?” That’s usually what was at stake.

Here are more examples of the stakes in popular novels:

  1. Harry Potter: The entire series has stakes along the lines of life and death, but also in morality. Defeating Voldemort means a safer and less oppressed world, and those are the stakes in writing the story. If Harry and the others fail, that’s what they’d lose.
  2. The Hunger Games: Societal oppression is most at stake over the series as a whole. However, in the first book specifically, the stakes of the story is death, because Katniss has to survive a game in which only one survives (at least, traditionally that’s been the case).
  3. The Hating Game: In this romance novel, Lucy is vying for a specific job that her rival (and coworker) wants. Throughout the story, the job is at stake with many of the choices she makes.
  4. Bridgerton: Not only is love at stake, but the reputation of the characters is often one of the stakes in writing the author uses to create tension and move the story forward. Because of the historical setting and the strict social norms of high society living, any wrong move could destroy not only a single person’s reputation, but that of their family as well.

Note: there can be many stakes in a single story, with them compounding as the story goes on. This is a great way to create conflict in a story, and makes it all the more satisfying when everything comes together. Oftentimes, by the climax of a story, the main character will have lived through the loss of some stakes in their effort to prevent the biggest one from occurring.

Why Stakes are Used as a Primary Element of Story

You never really read stories about how a person did something, at the cost of nothing, and with no problems (conflict) on the way there. That’s not interesting. It’s not a good story. It’s not a story at all, but an account of events.

Stakes are powerful movement for your story. Without stakes, tension is flimsy. Without tension, there isn’t a huge emotional tie to the story for the reader. The stakes also give the character a reason to make certain decisions, and we never really know the outcome as the reader.

So in a way, the stakes in writing are what create the intrigue necessary for readers to finish reading the book. The question of “will they or won’t they” is powerful enough to keep a reader turning pages. If nothing is at stake, and nothing will be lost by the main character’s actions, then what interest does the reader really have in the story? What investment do they really have?

Sometimes it can work, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a book where there are no stakes and it’s still an interesting read.

That said, you can have different kinds of stakes, and they produce unique moods and tones within the story as a whole. Which means, depending on your audience, you’ll want to tweak the height of the stakes in writing: high or low.

High Stakes VS Low Stakes

I’d describe the difference in high VS low stakes like this: The more severe the effect on the main character’s and other people’s lives they care about, the higher the stakes. The less severe, the lower the stakes.

Many genres and subgenres have norms for the stakes in writing, specifically how high or low they are, which is important when considering reader expectations.

Let’s take a deeper look at what high stakes in writing looks like vs low and how you can use them.

High Stakes:

If the stakes are high, there is a lot on the line. This can be both in quantity of stuff that can be lost, as well as severity of the consequences of failure. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s life was at stake. Those are high stakes because of the severity of the consequences of failing.

High stakes can often look like:

  • death
  • injury
  • harm to masses of people
  • being forgotten or other historical consequences
  • betrayals
  • natural disasters
  • moral dilemmas

But your story could also have many things that could be lost as a result of failure, and not necessarily something that’s severe. This situation would still be considered to have high stakes in writing.

Low Stakes:

If the stakes are low, there are still meaningful elements on the line, but the consequences aren’t too severe. This isn’t to be mistaken for a boring or uninteresting read. It’s just a different style where the tension is reduced and the reader gains more intrigue from the characters, world, or plot itself.

Low stakes in writing can look like:

  • losing a job
  • closing the family business
  • missing out on an opportunity
  • misunderstandings
  • friendship squabbles
  • sense of self challenges
  • challenges with hobbies

Low stakes are often seen in books labeled as “cozy”, like cozy mysteries, cozy fantasy, and the like. Readers of these genres can expect that they won’t have to deal with too many severe consequences relating to dark themes, like death, destruction, assault, etc.

How to Create & Set the Stakes in Writing

Creating the stakes in writing will drive your story forward, and often impact much of the plot points going forward. The creation part of the stakes takes place when you’re plotting or coming up with story idea, for those of you who don’t plot much.

The other part is setting the stakes in the novel once you know what they are. We’ll talk about both of them.

Creating the Stakes:

This stage takes place during ideation. You’re coming up with story ideas and are gaining and understanding of the plot. More than that, though, is you should have a strong idea of who your character is within the plot and what it is they’re after because that will affect the stakes in writing.

The stakes will impact the decisions the character makes, which is vital to how the plot unfolds.

The character’s decisions will depend on two things:

  1. What they want
  2. What they’re willing to do to get it

This is why I can’t really talk about creating the stakes without talking about crafting an in-depth persona for your character. You have to know who they are, what their values are, their morality, and how all of those came to be.

A character’s wants and goals are the stakes in writing.

What they could lose = what they want most.

And what they’re willing to do and give up in order to reach their goals is depending on the type of person they are, and that you create them to be.

That’s what makes for a gripping story, one where the character will go to extreme lengths in order to get what they want, no matter what that is. When it comes down to it, the stakes in writing depend on the character you’ve crafted for the story.

We could get into more about where to start a story, with the plot or the character, and how everyone will have to find their own balance and dance with navigating it. But it’s more useful right now to talk about something more singular you can focus on that will help with the rest, and that’s this:

Readers often enjoy a story when the stakes in writing are something meaningful and import to the main character’s morals. When who they are as a person is challenged, it makes for greater stakes. Here’s some proof of readers wanting just that:

Example Of Character Stakes In Writing

What this might look like is a character who wants to bring their adopted family to a certain safe-haven island. This is a character who just lost one of those family members, and blames herself. She’s relentless in this pursuit, sacrificing much on the way there. The trick here is that the stakes are not “can’t bring family to safe-haven island”. The stakes are “if I don’t bring my family to this place, then I’m a terrible, awful person who doesn’t deserve happiness.”

Therefore, the true stakes in this case are highly tied to the character’s self beliefs.

And yes, this is for a main character in the fantasy story I’m working on 😉

The point is, if you can tie the stakes in writing to a deeper importance to the character, it will feel more powerful.

Setting the Stakes:

Most of the time, this happens very early in the story. It’s part of the hook that makes readers become invested in the character and story. You know the stakes as the writer, but the reader has to know them too—preferably without you needing to explicitly state them.

There can be moments in the story with other characters where they vocalize the stakes or the character has some interior monologue and says them. This can look like moments of planning or just fear and anxiety.

Here’s an example of a moment of inner monologue, when a character is thinking and contemplating, that sets the stakes in writing:

Lorraine recognized that if she went to the museum, she’d miss the meeting where they’d choose the project manager. If she didn’t get this job, her chances of getting promoted were almost nothing. But Ricardo Richards was at the museum. If she managed to get his attention and get a job with him, she wouldn’t need the promotion at all.”

But you can be less obvious about it, and allow the reader to conclude what the stakes would be. There isn’t a moment in The Hunger Games where the reader needs a full clarification of the stakes. Because the narrative has done a great job of showing the reader the world, its norms, and has taught you about The Games, we can understand what it means when Katniss volunteers as tribute. That moment is when the stakes are set, though there’s nothing said about it.

The reader knows that if she volunteers, she has to compete. If she competes and there’s only one survivor, she could die.

The stakes are that if she loses, she dies.

It’s not as complicated as it sometimes seems to set the stakes in writing.

You can actually set the stakes in three steps:

  1. Show who your character is.
  2. Show what they want.
  3. Show what’s in the way of them getting it.

That can also be the outline for an opening chapter or the first couple chapters, because within these three steps, you also introduce your protagonist, give them a motivation (what they want), and introduce the conflict (what’s in the way).

Three birds, one stone.

How to Raise the Stakes & Progress the Story

Over the course of the story, you’ll want to create more tension, aka raise the stakes. At the midway point when writing a novel, you’ll usually find that a big change has occurred in the plot. Something has come up, information has been revealed, or something has happened to shift the progress of the story.

The stakes in writing can be altered or made worse at this point.

When the stakes—what the main character can lose—become more severe, it’s called “raising the stakes”.

Raising the stakes creates a lot more tension in the story and can make a reader become more invested. There are two primary ways to do this:

  1. Increase the amount of what can be lost
  2. Increase the cost of what’s needed to succeed

So you can add more stakes in writing so they pile on top of each other, causing them to feel higher, or you can make the consequences of failure and what must be done in order to succeed that much more significant. Both of these will raise the stakes.

But how do you know what to do in order to raise the stakes? You go back to your character. Specifically looking at what the character values. Over the course of the book, this can change or grow. In order to raise the stakes in writing, take what the character values most and threaten it.

This is why in many stories where a romance is involved, the stakes are raised when the main character falls in love. Now they could lose their loved one and the other thing they don’t want to lose.

Can the stakes in writing ever change completely?

In a way, yes. In the section on creating and setting stakes above, I mentioned tying it to the character arc. If a character changes enough, the stakes can change as a result. If they no longer care about getting that job, because they realize the job was what their parents wanted and they only wanted to feel accepted in their parents’ eyes, then the stakes change to something else.

Now the stakes are their own happiness, not the job they thought would make their parents proud of them.

You do have to be careful with changing the stakes though. It has to be done authentically and with a tie-in to the character, or due to a major plot twist that changes the direction of the story. Otherwise, you’ll end up with plot holes that cause issues.

The stakes in writing are a huge part of the story. Without getting these right, you could lack tension, have a non cohesive plot, and readers might get bored. But it’s not the only thing you need to write a good story. For quality novels, there’s a whole process that proves successful, and you can take a free class to learn just that here:

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