Raising the Stakes


Admittedly, I’m a bit of a wimp, but the picture above still creeps me out. Climbing up a vertical mountain with no safety net or backup plan is not my cup of tea.  In this picture, I get a vague sense of his stakes, but they don’t really mean a lot to me.

Look at the uncropped version below, now.I’m fairly certain those green bits aren’t algae. Nothing changed for the guy hanging on the cliff, but for me, the stakes just got SO MUCH higher. Why? Because now I don’t have a vague idea of “he will fall” for the stakes. I have a very specific understanding of what will happen if he fails. And suddenly, though his situation hasn’t changed at all, I care a whole heck of a lot more.

Sometimes, however, I’m not just the person watching someone else risk their life. When I was younger, I competed gymnastics. I wasn’t very good at it, but I had a few strengths: I was flexible, for one thing, and tended to have impeccable form. I practiced 16 hours a week. Beam was my least favorite event, but I happened to be really good at it, for my level.

See, I wasn’t doing anything crazy, like this:

The coolest thing I could do was a back walkover on beam, which involved more grace and flexibility than tumbling prowess. Right up my alley, in terms of my strengths. And I performed some pretty great ones during practice. In fact, often times we were required to do five or ten or fifteen skills or routines in a row. I did that, say, one Friday.

Then I came back to gym the next day, in a long-sleeved velvet leotard instead of a tank top one. My hair was hair sprayed in place and coated in glitter (it was 2002…). Suddenly, I had to salute a judge before performing my beam routine. Suddenly, even though it was a home meet, and I was doing the same routine on the same beam in front of my same coach, the stakes were a lot higher.

I wouldn’t have made a good protagonist, because I crumbled under the pressure. I spent my last competitive season as a first-time level 6, and I never once made it through a competitive beam routine without falling off. Even though I never really had to. I would place my feet on the beam, remember how much was at stake, and lose it. In some old videos, it looks like I land and then just hop off. I bail. I can’t manage the pressure.

Sometimes what your story needs isn’t more action. Sometimes it’s more stakes.  One of the most gripping parts of my WIP, IMHO, involves the main character walking into her house. It goes on for pages, and I think it’s one of the most poignant scenes I’ve written so far. She goes in with some friends and makes her way into her father’s office.

So what? She already did that at the beginning of the book. But at the beginning of the book, the stakes were low. She was just asking for permission to do something that she was fairly sure he’d let her do.

The second time she goes into his office, I’ve spent something like thirty-five pages  leading up to the moment. Thirty-five pages where we learn exactly what’s at stake, and exactly how improbable a good outcome is. Thirty-five pages of learning just how important a good outcome is.

Suddenly, everything – and nothing – has changed. A moment that had little meaning in the opening has been repeated. But this time, it’s life or death.

William Carlos Williams wrote a poem that goes like this:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white
chickens. [source]

I bet someone could write a story in which all the plot lines converge so that everything does depend on that red wheel barrow being beside the white chickens. There are stories where everything depends upon the contents of a note. Or everything depends upon getting to a familiar location at a certain time. Or getting 4 out of 10 in a dance competition. The higher the stakes, the more everything depends upon it.

What do you do to raise stakes for your characters? What is a good example from another book you can think of where the stakes were raised?


  1. Excellent post. As you’ll soon find out, the huge change in my MS is trading objectively huge, public stakes for intensely personal emotional stakes. The “smaller” of the two has layers of conflict the big picture could never achieve.

  2. The first pic just looks like the guy laid down on a road and decided to pretend like he was rock climbing. The second- holy crap! That’s crazy/amazing! Good things to ruminate on in this post.

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