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How to Raise the Stakes in Your Novel and Create a Gripping Story


Is your story kinda boring?

No one sets off to write a boring story, but it's pretty easy to do. The skeleton of your story may be compelling and unique, but it's the fatty, fleshy parts that often weigh your story down. Let's change that. In this post, we'll help you trim the fat and raise the stakes.

What Does It Mean to Raise the Stakes?

Raise the stakes means to increase the level of risk, reward, and/ or commitment. It goes hand in hand with motivation. The character is motivated and can't quit because he's at risk of something worse happening if he does. Or the character is motivated and can't quit because the reward of making it to the end is too great. Or the reader is motivated and can't quit reading because they're now completely invested and committed to your story and its characters.

When you’ve raised the stakes on the reader, you get reviews like, “What a page-turner!” or “I was on the edge of my seats the entire time.”

Raising the stakes isn't always about life or death, but it is always about the consequences. What happens if the character fails? What happens if the character wins? You’ll know that you’ve successfully raised the stakes if your reader is asking you what will happen next.

The Danger of Raising the Stakes

stakes in storytellinga

While you should steadily raise the stakes throughout your novel, be careful. There is also a big risk in raising the stakes non-stop.

If you continue to amp the danger up to an almost unbearable level of tension, your novel will turn into a thrill ride. Sure, it may be a fun read, but ultimately, your novel will lack substance. It will sacrifice characterization for cheap thrills. Your reader will come away feeling dizzy and slightly confused.

In a novel format, you have the time to explore the character's choices and challenges without constantly lurching from one heart-stopping moment to the next. Take that time. If you don't, you'll end up with shallow characters and muddled motivations. Even worse, as the story takes more unbelievable turns, your characters will become slaves to the plot.

Instead of driving the plot, your adrenaline-charged plot will become more important than the characters. Your characters will fall flat. They'll grow weak. They may even turn into stereotypes. They'll definitely become plot devices. As a result, their actions and reactions will be unrealistic and inauthentic. They'll become less sympathetic to the reader.

You want none of that unless you're writing the screenplay for a Hollywood blockbuster.

But what does all of this mean? Should you avoid raising the stakes out of fear that you'll deflate your characters? Absolutely not.

Not only is raising the stakes a good idea, but it's also absolutely essential for a riveting story.

Not only is raising the stakes a good idea, it's absolutely essential for a riveting story. Here's why:

When done correctly, raising the stakes will develop your characters and make clear their motivations. It will also give the reader an understanding of what's at risk for the characters.

Let's discuss how to raise the stakes the right way.

Make It About Your Character

Instead of making the stakes about the end of the world, make it about the end of your character's world. This subtle shift is an important one.

Set up your scenes in a way that you can delicately and realistically increase the risk for your characters, specifically the protagonist. Remember it doesn't have to be a big idea like "the universe is imploding and all life as we know it is coming to an end." Instead, it needs to be about the character's life imploding in some way. If the character doesn't act, then they'll lose something that's important to them. This is what motivates them and keeps your reader hooked.

Focus on One Character at a Time

stakes in storytellinga

Instead of making the stakes about every person in the scene, make it about one person in the scene, usually your protagonist.

Here's what I mean:

Can you think of an example when life raised the stakes on you? It probably came out of nowhere and punched you in the gut. For example, you're at the checkout lane in the grocery store and then notice that your ex is walking down one of the aisles. Things ended pretty badly with infidelity and deceit, and you don't want to say hello. Should you just abandon your cart and fast walk out of the store while you still have the chance?

This is a realistic example of raising the stakes on just one character. In this example, you're the protagonist and your risk is all that matters. Instead of focusing on both you and your ex, the stakes are raised on your side alone.

Focusing on just one character will reduce the noise and give the reader a clear goal to root for.

Don't Zoom Out Too Fast Too Soon

Raising the stakes is often about pulling the camera back and seeing the bigger picture. But be careful that you don't go too wide. Letting the character and the reader see too much too soon will increase the confusion and decrease the tension in your story.

Instead, tie the risks to something that will happen immediately if the character doesn't choose the right course of action. Make the threat present and immediate. Also, make the resolution swift and complete. This allows you to introduce new stakes at a steady pace without overwhelming the characters (or the reader).

Focus on the Emotion in the Scene

When you raise the stakes, you elicit an emotional response from both your character and your reader.

That's right. It's not just an emotional surprise for your character. It needs to startle your reader, too. They should not see the gut punch coming, and they should be invested in the character’s choice.

Ask Questions to Uncover What's at Stake

In every scene in your novel, you need to ask, "What's at stake?"

In other words, what will your character lose if they don't act? What will your character gain if they do? Is your character's action consistent with his personality and history of choices?

You should also examine if your stakes actually move your story forward.

What happens after the character acts/ doesn't act? Something has to happen. If nothing happens, there's no point. Don't just raise the stakes for the purpose of seeing what the character will do. Raise the stakes for the dual purposes of revealing more about the character and plot progression.

Final Thoughts

To raise the stakes, focusing in on the character and their world. This will tighten the tension and make the story more personal and gripping.

Here are a few must-read related posts to check out:

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