S is for Stakes: to risk something, as upon the result of a game or occurrence or outcome of any uncertain event or venture. (Dictionary.com)
When writing a story, plot is of utmost importance, but the plot means nothing if there isn’t something of high value at stake for the main character. My favorite writing guru, literary agent Donald Maass, asks in his book on craft, The Fire in Fiction, “If your protagonist is not successful, so what?” meaning, why should anyone care what happens to him? You see, life and death stakes are meaningless unless they are tied to an underlying human worth. The character’s life must have meaning, purpose, and value. Simply put, the reader needs to care. In building his value, you’re building the stakes. But how do you do that?
Give your protagonist high principles and an ethical code of personal conduct. This will make him more compelling. Then test those principles to the extreme. Make him struggle to remain loyal to his personal belief system. And this struggle should not just matter to him, but to others, as well, because stakes work on two levels, public and private, and those stakes should be high on both.
Tune into what society might lose if your protagonist fails. To do this, Maass suggests beginning with a grain of truth that lends itself to high plausibility. Deepen that by going inside the character’s mind, attend his ideas of right and wrong. Grant him the American Dream, build that dream into an empire, then put it all at risk. What would devastate him to lose? What disaster would leave him feeling insecure, lost and alone, shaken and fearful? Build your protagonist’s story around that disaster.
His stakes will feel stronger if he is sympathetic in some way. So let your reader know the main character as intimately as possible, as much as you do. And if the protagonist cares passionately for his own life, the reader will feel invested, too.
Maass writes that every protagonist needs: “an aching regret, a tortuous need, a visible dream, an inescapable ambition, a passionate longing, an exhaustive lust, an inner lack, an unavoidable obligation, a fatal weakness, an iron instinct, a noble ideal, an irresistible plan, an undying hope…that in the end, propels him beyond the boundaries that confine the rest of us and brings about fulfilling change.”
So as writers, we must escalate those stakes, “…make our characters suffer, kill his closest ally, take away his greatest physical asset, undermined his faith, shorten the timeline he has to solve his problem.”
How high are your protagonist’s stakes, and what forces can you put into motion that will raise them even higher?