Monday, January 11, 2010

Stakes

No, I'm not talking vampire-killing tools here. Stakes are what give your story a sense of urgency or purpose for whatever it is your character has to do. Stakes are what makes your reader keep reading. Stakes are what happen if your character DOESN'T overcome the obstacles in his or her way, or get what he or she wants.

Stakes usually inhabit each scene and chapter as well as tie into the overall story. To get a sense of what I mean by stakes, let's look at some popular stories.

The Godfather
If Michael Corleone fails to take control of the family's position relative to the other families, his death will be certain and gruesome. In order to preserve his power and his life, he must win. The stakes are his family's power and lives.

The Wizard of Oz
If Dorothy doesn't kill the witch as directed by the wizard, then he won't help her get home and she'll remain in Oz forever. The stake is her returning home.

Star Wars (original)
If Luke doesn't blow up the Death Star, then the Empire will take over and crush everyone and the force. The stakes are millions of lives.

Aliens
If the space marines don't blow up the aliens on the planet, then um....well it wont be good. No. For the space marines, the stakes are their lives, although they don't know that going in. For Sigourney Weaver's character, Ripley, the stakes are more complicated. They're putting to rest the bad memory of the aliens that killed her crew (back in the original movie, Alien).

Twilight
Bella is bent on loving Edward, but Edward might kill her at any moment. The stake is her life. (And might I add, this stake is why the book is so popular. Anytime you're in love with your killer, it makes for a good story.)

Sometimes you don't want to give away the stakes because it will reveal a piece of the story that might want to be a twist. However, there should always be a sense of tension, a sense that the stakes won't be met.

Stakes are often, as evidenced by Twilight, also appropriately thought of as hooks (but not premises). If your stakes are good and high enough, then everyone will be leaping at the story.

Can you cite some good high stake stories in movies or books?
Can you cite what the stakes are for your characters in your own novel?

9 comments:

KLM said...

Good post, Sierra. This stuff is hard to figure out and even good writers get this wrong or they waaaay over do it, thinking that adding chase scenes or explosions will make dramatic tension magically appear. The biggest question that comes up whenever I read things on Query Shark and the like: Why should I -- the reader -- care?

T. Anne said...

Great post. I jotted down a note to get the stakes for each of my characters. I love this!

Julie Dao said...

This is an excellent point ... looking at the stakes for your story and characters gives you so much information. I'll have to remember to do this for my own. Thanks for the tip!

Sierra Godfrey said...

Thanks guys, I'm glad you found it helpful. A lot of times I write these posts and learn something in the process of writing them, or I write them in order to explore a subject for my own knowledge. Of particular help was taking popular stories and finding their stakes. If you can do that, it helps train you to find the stakes in your own story, which is not easy. It took me a long time to find my character's stakes.

Lindsey Himmler said...

I think I struggle with making the stakes TOO high. While having the whole world be in peril can be effective, sometimes I think I could tone down things a bit.

Sierra Godfrey said...

That's a really interesting concept, Lindsey. Can you elaborate? What have you done to make the stakes too high? Granted, if you're writing a romance novel, then saving the entire world aren't appropriate stakes. Is it a matter of genre stakes, or...?

Natalie said...

Interesting Sierra. I've never stopped to think about the stakes in my novels before. I'm not so sure there are stakes in my current WIP, which is probably why writing it has been so hard. Maybe I need to figure that out :)

Meredith Rae Morgan said...

I learned to consider the character's heart's desire. Looking at the stakes involved in pursuing that desire is a piece I've been missing. Thanks!

Tina Lynn said...

This is an excellent post. I often find if the stakes aren't high enough I get bored with the story. I chose life and death. I think those are the stakes in all my stories. Maybe I should branch out:)

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