Friday, April 20, 2012

A to Z Challenge: Raising Stakes

On N-day, I mentioned that raising the stakes make a huge difference to the middle of a book, but that I'd do another post about it. Well, today is that day.

Stakes make a difference, because stakes keep the tension in a story as tight as you want it to be.

Think of it as a poker game. The more you put into the pot, the greater your stake will be in winning the game. It becomes more important to you. If you put $500 into the pot,  the game will be really tense, but not as tense as putting $50000 in. And DEFINITELY not as tense as putting in the last $50000 that you own. The first is pretty big situation, the second bigger. The last is life changing.

Ideally speaking, you want the story to start as the poker players (your characters) are about to start playing. And then, with every game, they increase their bets, increasing their stakes in each game (chapter). If you really want to get things tense, you can lock each player in and let someone else (the bad character, perhaps?) increase the bets for them.

The reason why I say this is ideal is because the reader gets to know the character before all hell breaks loose. So they know who the character is. Then as the stakes increase, we get to know them better. We learn to care about them and how they react to challenges. And then just as the reader gets to the middle and thinks the character can't take more, that final $50000 game starts. The life changer. The one that will ultimately change that character - for better or worse - forever. That's good reading.

Sometimes, though, the poker game is longer than others. For example in a series, there might be a few big rounds towards the end of each book. Rounds so big that the reader thinks that it's the life changer. But the real life changer will occur in the last book. Otherwise, why would the reader bother sitting through the stories after that?

So, if your middle is sagging, odds are that it's because none of your characters are making any bets. There's nothing happening to make the reader worry about what the character stands to lose. And that's a huge problem when your story is about to go towards the climax. After all, the climax is about where the character wins or loses the most.

Make sure that the reader can sense what's at stake. You don't need to spell it out. Just make it big enough to spot. Hint at the possible results of failure. And of success. And above all, give them a feeling of the odds.

And then for maximum tension: In the life changing round of the poker game that is your character's story, force them to go for the royal flush.

Look Out for These:

1) Middle sagging because you either put the stakes too high too early, or didn't raise the stakes.

2) Undefined stakes.

3) CPs and betas doubting why they should be caring.

What's your approach to stakes in a story?


  1. Very valid points all round. And I do have sagging middles in more than one sense! I must grit my teeth and up the stakes (repeat it three times). Great post.

  2. Nicely done! Steven Spielberg is a master of raising the stakes. The Lost World is a prime example: The First T-Rex scene is one tension-biting even after another. And just as we think the players are in the clear, something else raises our heart rate! Classic.

  3. Really good post and got me seriously thinking about my current WIP. Yep, think the stakes need to be raised...

  4. Really good list, Misha. I could go for a little less tension around my house these days. If only the stakes were lower. Then I could skip the laundry. ;)

  5. Totally true. You have to care about the characters before you can put them in bad situations, but also don't take too long. My sagging middle is what I'm reviewing right now.

  6. Hi- I found your blog from the A to Z challenge. I'm currently learning all about stakes and adding tension into stories. It really is a craft and not just about getting the grammar right! Not that I'd ever admit that outloud, but my work tends to be meticulously edited however not always engaging enough :) Writing = journey. :)

    thanks for a great post!

  7. When I first started writing, I found myself succumbing to the first item on your "look out" list a lot. I'd raise the stakes to earth-shattering levels from the get go, then fail at keeping that initial tension throughout the novel.

    Great advice, Misha!

  8. well I have sagging middle and tension in life - my books middle's are tonned:) dropping by on the A-Z trail to say hi we are nearly at the end:)

  9. Raising stakes in a book is a must--good observation that it's like gambling away your life's savings. It should be like that for your hero/heroine.

  10. Nice analogy using the poker game. That's very true.

  11. Great post! I love books that ramp up both the overarching stakes and the personal stakes for characters.

  12. Hey the blog is really awesome... keep up the good work


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