Whether you’re a meticulous plotter who likes to have every single duck in a row before you begin the journey, or a complete pantser who likes to jump in and let the trip unspool, making sure at least the key elements of your story are in place before you begin a draft can be the difference between getting lost in a detour or dead end or running out of gas—and a story you actually finish.
In part one of my mini-primer for how to prepare for NaNoWriMo, we defined the spine of the story you want to tell, and your protagonist(s), the traveler on that journey. In part two we set them on the road, identifying the problem they’re facing and what drives them, and beginning to lay out the path for what they have to do to achieve their goals.
Now let’s give that story an engine: why it matters, and why readers want to take this trip with you and your characters: what’s at stake for the protagonist.
What Makes It Matter?
Readers enter into story through character, and we won’t invest in the character’s journey unless the character cares profoundly about why they have to take it: what he stands to gain or lose as a direct result of achieving or failing to achieve his goal.
The stakes don’t have to be large-scale—aliens are endangering the world, lives are at stake. But they must be huge to your protagonist. What she has to gain or lose must matter enormously to your character, even if it seems objectively minor in the grand scheme of the universe. In fact, the more specific and personal the stakes, the better.
Don’t think in terms of adding more stuff—that can lead to melodrama. Think in terms of adding more meaning. If your protag is tracking a murderer before his next kill, for instance, you don’t need to add more victims, or make his crimes more horrific.
Instead, maybe you make the victim he’s kidnapped someone important to the protagonist. Maybe you add a personal connection with the killer–it’s someone your protag knows, or who was once an ally, or this is the case that has eluded her for her entire career and she’s determined to stop this killer before her upcoming retirement.
Then, as you’re drafting, remember that stakes should build ever higher across the story arc. That can be through making the goal more important or urgent, introducing a ticking clock or deadline.
It can be by adding more threat or danger. It can be by adding complexity or complication—maybe your protag is an alcoholic and she has a regression as she’s closing in on the killer, or is beset with crippling self-doubt, or loses the trail in the eleventh hour before the murderer has promised his next victim will die.
What Makes It Matter Now?
Even if you’ve created a powerful, compelling goal and motivation for your character with meaningful risks or reward on the line, if there’s no urgent reason she has to embark on the journey toward that goal now, in this story, then stakes may fall flat or fizzle out as you draft.
Let’s say your protagonist stands to inherit the family fortune when his father suddenly dies, but the will stipulates that he receive no inheritance until he marries. What makes it urgent that he do so imminently?
Unless there’s something pressing and compelling at stake right now—if he fails to marry by his next birthday he forfeits the family legacy, or a bride will be chosen for him, or whichever son marries first inherits everything—then there’s no urgent reason for him to chase after this goal. He could marry tomorrow, next year, or ten years from now, as long as there’s nothing else in play that makes him need that money immediately.
That brings us to a third key element of establishing high stakes:
What Makes It Essential?
Many writers make the mistake of assuming the character’s goal in the story is inherently high-stakes, such as inheriting a fortune, or choosing or leaving a lover, or winning a job or promotion.
These types of goals aren’t high-stakes in and of themselves, though; we need to know why your character must pursue the goal.
Going back to our bachelor heir, why is that money so compelling to him? Plenty of people—about 99 percent of us, in fact—figure out how to get by in life without inheriting a fortune. Money itself isn’t a value—it’s what money means to a character and what drives him that powers the stakes, and that’s often tied to his internal motivation.
Why is it essential that he get that money? Does he or a loved one have a rare disease and need an expensive alternative treatment to stay alive? Does he owe money to a loan shark who’s promised to take a finger for every day he has to wait for repayment? Do his brothers plan to use the money to expand the family business that’s destroying rain forests or glaciers or polluting the environment and he’s desperate to stop them?
What makes the goal essential doesn’t have to be grandiose—in the movie Akeelah and the Bee, what rides on whether Akeelah wins a spelling bee is her chance at a better education than would be available to her otherwise. But she’s a smart girl who’s beginning to slip into resignation and anger because of the dim future she feels is available to her in her lower-income neighborhood, and this bee is her best and perhaps only chance at the kind of future she dreams of.
Fizzling stakes are a prime reason authors may get stuck in a first draft. Take some time before you start writing to concretely define why what your character desperately wants matters, what makes it urgent, and why it’s essential that she attain or avoid it, and those stakes will serve as a powerful motor of your story, keeping your character pushing forward throughout the plot toward what she’s striving for.