Something important is on the line, but could it be… more important? How would you even do that? This week, we’re talking about raising the stakes in your story, from how to establish stakes in the first place to what happens when the stakes are as high as they can go. We’ll cover why some stakes are higher than others, and why alligators can be more important than saving the world. Plus, Oren’s deep philosophical commentary on Immanuel Kant.
Generously transcribed by Claire. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[opening song]
Wes: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host, Wes. And with me today is…
Wes: All right. Reach out, grab that wooden piece, and raise the stakes, ‘cause that’s what we’re doing today. Fight back these vampires!
Oren: Well, first you have to lift the stakes up higher into the air and maybe you have to get them out of the ground for that, ‘cause sometimes stakes are in the ground.
Chris: Well, maybe they’re flying vampires.
Wes: [laughs] They might be.
Chris: Gotta get them high enough. Yeah.
Wes: Yeah. But, of course, I don’t know, maybe we do need to revisit how to properly fashion a stake out of a piece of wood first, so it works.
Oren: I mean, can’t you just pick up some steaks from the meat department?[Laughter]
Wes: Maybe, do you just have spare stakes lying around? You can just grab them? So on that hilarious note, we’re talking about stakes today. Namely those important things in your stories that help give them some meaning and weight and keep readers engaged and interested. And so we kind of want to talk about those today. How raising the stakes can have an impact on your stories events by highlighting conflict, adding tension, maybe revealing new truths, propelling character arcs, all that good stuff. But before you can raise anything, you need to establish what they are first. If you don’t do that, and suddenly everybody is just like fighting back, flying vampires, that might be cool, but it might come out of nowhere and not really emotionally resonate with your readers.
Chris: So, Wes, what are stakes?
Wes: Well, they’re wooden implements used to fight off vampires.We established this.[Laughter]
Wes: You hear people say they’re the thing that matters in the story, like the essential thing, but they’re more like the thing that your character is risking losing, that adds a hole. I would rather have like writers operate on that notion of: “Oh, no. I need to make sure that this hole gets filled!” or “stays filled” or something that works with this metaphor here…[Chris laughs]
Wes: …because it’s better to operate on the presumption of loss because that adds tension. It’s more motivating. So why is your character doing what they’re doing? They need to save the person they love from being turned into a lich.
Oren: Being a lich can be fun though. I don’t know. Maybe explore that option first is all I’m saying.
Wes: Maybe they’re afraid that if their loved one becomes a lich they won’t be able to survive as long, so then they have to become a lich too. But I dunno… it’s getting out of control at this point.
Oren: And I would say that you can have stories based around positive stakes, but you also have to demonstrate a need for them. On its own, a story about someone trying to get a raise isn’t necessarily that compelling. But if they’re trying to get a raise to pay for medical care, that’s compelling. Or if they’re trying to get a raise, because they need that to keep their house or something. Now, of course, at that point, also losing the house is stakes. So you can have more than one. Or if your character is fighting to improve social conditions for a large area, you need to show why the current conditions are a problem. And then improving them can be a compelling set of stakes.
Chris: I think when it comes down to it, the idea is that stories need to generate tension. That’s what creates story structure and it’s what makes the story gripping and more engaging. There are other ways to make a story engaging, but this is probably the bread and butter way of doing it. And this is one requirement for tension. It’s not the only requirement for tension, but it’s a really important one. And it always boils down to keeping something bad from happening that could happen.
Chris: And so, technically, when we talk about stakes, there could be bad and good stakes, but even if we have good stakes, they are not effective unless, again, we can translate it to something bad that could happen. So I also sometimes call them consequences. This is the consequences if the protagonist fails.
Oren: And the other main lever that you pull on to create tension is the likelihood of failure. How, how difficult succeeding at this task looks like it’s going to be. That can be because the villain opposing you is very threatening. Or, if you aren’t fighting a villain directly, it might just be that the thing you have to do is really hard. And, those two things together, something to lose and a likelihood of losing it, is the core way that you make tension.
Wes: I also liked throwing in: “What does failure look like?” If there’s a clear picture of that as well, I think it adds strength to your stakes.
Chris: Certainly makes it more powerful, doesn’t it?
Wes: It really does.
Oren: And that’s especially important when the consequences of failure are that the villain will get to do whatever the villain wants to do, right? Some consequences are obvious. If what you’re trying to do is stop a rock from falling on people you love, it’s not hard to imagine what the consequences of this large rock falling on people you love might be. It’s going to involve some squishiness. But if the consequences of failure are that the bad guy will become the mayor or what have you, or the bad guy will get control of this alien artifact or something, it’s like, okay, well, what would that mean? What would the bad guy do if they succeeded? Then you have to get a little more involved in showing the possibilities of failure.
Chris: I think a good practice to do is, when you come up with those consequences or those negative stakes, to just start asking yourself: “Why is that bad?” And keep answering until somebody would look at you like you’re a sadist or something.[Laughter]
Wes: Great advice.
Oren: One of the more common things I work on with clients is when they have bad guys who… it’s not really clear what would happen if the bad guy won. It’s like, yeah, this guy seems bad and he wants control of this powerful artifact, but what are you going to do with it? What would he have to do that he would use that artifact for that would be bad? ‘Cause if him just having it isn’t super bad… If all he does is keep it in his garage.
Chris: Why is that bad?
Oren: It’s bad, ‘cause he’s going to squish things with it! Things you don’t want squished![Laughter]
Chris: So, raising the stakes. We’re talking about taking those bad things and lifting them up high into the air, right?
Oren: Yeah. Like the rock that’s going to be raised up over people that you love.[Chris laughs]
Oren: Well, raising the stakes is literally just showing that there is more on the line than you originally thought. It is adding to the things that are at stake, adding to the consequences of failure, and that is one of the ways that tension builds over the course of the story
Wes: Something that I wanted to talk about with raising the stakes that maybe we wanted to kind of get out in the open first, because I know how much we hate hiding things from readers. And so, what if you thought that you would raise the stakes by later in the story revealing the character’s motivation for why they’re doing what they’re doing. And this has been the POV character the entire time, but you know, maybe the POV character has just been a little reserved lately. You know? And then just decides: “Oh man, we’ve got like three chapters left. It’s time to actually reveal why I’m doing this.”
Chris: No, that’s the worst!
Oren: Wes, why do you hurt me?
Wes: That’s raising the stakes, right? I’ve raised the stakes, you guys. No problem.
Chris: [Laughter] Is the solution worse than the problem?
Wes: [Laughter] I mean, I don’t know. We have to give the people what they want, which is hot takes on bad advice.
Chris: [Laughter] No, that’s terrible.[Wes laughs]
Oren: You hurt me on the inside.
Wes: Sorry, you guys. I just had to get that out there. So don’t hide things for your readers, please!No meta mysteries with your stakes or anything like that.
Oren: Yeah, there are definitely some stories that do that. Where they’re like: “Ah-ha! Actually this is what’s been at stake the whole time!” and it’s like, man, it would have been great to know that earlier.[Laughter]
Wes: But in all seriousness though. we talked about emotional resonance, what things look like when we kind of get a better picture of what failure looks like. Those are good ways to raise the stakes. But if you know that your character has love and attachment, you can always increase the scale of what they love and are attached to that might be lost. It could go from their farm to the town’s farms to the region, because it’s a plague that they can’t contain. You know, things like that.
Oren: And there were a couple of different ways to go about this, right? You can increase the magnitude of an existing stake. So if, for example, your conflict is that your character is trying to get extra credit on a project to bring their grade up, and then they find out that they actually got a really bad grade on their last test, so now this project needs to be perfect just to pass. That is making the existing stakes more severe. It’s increasing the badness of the thing that will happen if they fail.
Oren: You can also add separate stakes. So, in that same scenario, your hero is working on an extra project, an extra credit project to bring their grade up, and then a new cutie transfers into their class. And this cutie is really into whatever the subject is. And demonstrates interest in what the protagonist is doing. So now the protagonist is like: “I have to get this project really good, so I can impress that cutie.” And that’s a different stake that you’ve added, but I’d be cautious with that one, because if you add too many, it gets hard to keep track of them. Right? It’s like, oh, if he doesn’t finish this project to get a bad grade and the cutie won’t go on a date with him or them. (It doesn’t have to be him). And, also, maybe they’ll lose their driver’s license! What is happening? How many stakes do we have going on here?[Laughter]
Wes: This poor protagonist, Oren. What have you done?
Oren: There’s too many things going on here!
Chris: Yeah, I do think, to a certain extent, stakes can be subjective. Generally, it goes: the lowest stakes are a matter of feelings. A character is unhappy and could be happier or will be unhappy if something happens. And then, for a little higher stakes, usually it’s like the success of an important relationship or a little higher is usually a matter of personal freedoms or the destruction of something that’s really important that we care about. And then life or death being higher yet. And then “the world is ending” is the epic level stakes. But, for some things like the success of a relationship, how much that has high stakes really depends on the emotional investment in that relationship.
Chris: You know, especially when you have something like romance, where some people just aren’t into romance and don’t like it, period. And some people really love romance. And so how much people are going to feel like that is high stakes or how important that is is going to vary a lot. And, generally what we say is that lower stakes work better (again) the more emotionally invested the reader is in the story. The mor you get them attached to your characters, then the more the low stakes can carry the story. But still, usually you would raise them at some point during the course of the story, and that makes it easier to raise tension, during the course of the story.
Oren: We talked about the ANTS a lot, right? The four critical elements that make stories popular. And those are as separate as we can get them, but they still depend on each other to a certain extent. And so whether or not your romantic story will have tension depends a lot on how attached readers are to the characters. So those are two qualities, but they have a big relationship here.
Oren: And I mentioned this in my urban fantasy article that I put out a couple of weeks ago where I discussed how one of the reasons why Teen Wolf‘s first season has pretty good tension is that most of its conflicts are actually social in the early episodes. Like you’ve got, you know, “Will Scott be able to play on the lacrosse team despite being a werewolf?” And “Will he be able to salvage his date, which has turned into an awkward double date with two people he doesn’t like?” Right? And those are things that, if you don’t like Scott, then who cares? Right? What does it matter? So the show has to build a lot of attachment in Scott very quickly to make those matter, and I would argue that it succeeds. But, regardless, that’s what you would have to do if you wanted to make those important.
Wes: I do like the classification of low stakes. We begin with our feelings, and your feelings are great, but not as important as knowing that there is literally a ticking time bomb, right? A time limit to achieving your goal is a good way to raise the stakes. You learn that you don’t actually have as much time to defeat the lich before… Defeat your partner from becoming a lich and leaving you forever… [Laughter] …to get back to that.
Chris: Different stories have different levels of stakes and levels of tension. So every story doesn’t need life or death stakes. But, generally, I think most stories at least have relationship stakes. It’s… Usually, if you have a story that’s really just more about a character arc, it’s helpful to externalize that in some way. Where there’s something external happening that forces the care to confront their flaws or make a change. And that provides a little bit higher stakes than how they feel. Even though that’s very related to how they feel.
Chris: So, I would say that even though it can… If you have high attachment, those feelings can be really important, but most stories have higher stakes than that, at least by the end.
Oren: Another thing to keep in mind when you are looking at raising the stakes is: Stakes can only go so high. You will hit a ceiling at which point, theoretically, they can go higher, but dramatically, it doesn’t matter. And this is a particular issue that sequels often have. The most blatant example of this that I can think of is in the Abhorsen books, where the first one has a bad guy who wants to turn everyone in the world into zombies. And it’s like, “Oh man, we better stop that guy!” Right? “Cause he’s a bad man and so we gotta stop him.” And so they do. And then in the second book, it’s like: “Oh man, this guy’s way worse. He wants to blow up the universe.” And okay, but from the perspective of basically every human, that’s the same thing. They were all gonna be zombies.They were all going to die. The universe dying afterwards is like…
Chris: Might as well.[Laughter]
Oren: It’s like if you care a lot about non-human animals, then that might be higher stakes. There aren’t any aliens in the setting as far as we know. So, the stakes there are basically the same. And you get the same thing where you’ll get like a villain who will be like, “I’m going to kill you.” And they’re like, “Oh no, he’s going to kill us.” And then they’ll be like, “And when you’re dead, I’m gonna mess up your bodies” and they’re gonna really make them ugly. And it’s like, “I mean, we’re dead, so…”[Laughter]
Oren: There’s a limit to how high the stakes can go. And then you can also have a problem of if your story is something like, say Teen Wolf, where as far as Teen Wolf is concerned, the entire world is basically this one town in Northern California called Beacon Hills and they almost never leave it. And everyone important lives there. And it’s that way for like five and a half seasons. And then in season six, they’re like, “We’re going to destroy every supernatural in the world.” And it’s like, “I guess…”
Wes: So you’re going to burn down Beacon Hills, ‘cause they’re literally all here?
Oren: Well, I mean, theoretically, there are others that aren’t here, but I don’t know any of them. I’ve never cared about them. As far as I know in this show, Beacon Hills is the only place that matters.
Chris: I mean, if the stakes are already all the characters that readers have gotten to know are going to die, raising it beyond that is just going to feel trivial. Even if we know that there is, you know, other creatures out there or animals or people that are theoretically important, it’s not going to have the same level of attachment and emotional investment, as the people in the story that we have gotten to know over the course of the story. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t raise tension higher. It just means you can’t raise tension higher by raising the stakes.
Wes: Yeah, and I think that’s a good point of difference. If the stakes are that the universe… Actually, I liked it better that everyone’s turned into zombies.[Chris laughs]
Wes: If the stakes are already that high, then is it still considered raising…? Like, just, maybe this is just a bit of nomenclature we should clarify. If suddenly, you’re on your way to go stop the baddie from turning everybody into zombies, but you get thrown into, I don’t know, a swamp portal dimension, and you have to survive and get through that swamp, have I just raised the stakes or have I just added a complication?
Chris: Well, that sounds like a child arc, right? So the stakes of the story are still the world’s going to end, but the swamp is an obstacle that you have to survive in order to save the world.
Wes: Good. So then stakes are throughline related. They’re not scene-based.
Oren: Well, each scene could have its own stakes, right? Because your plot is a fractal.[Laughter]
Wes: Yeah, I get that. But if we’ve established early on that the throughline, the main stakes, are to stop this guy from making everybody zombies. I just want to make sure we’re not crossing wires with what we’re calling things. ‘Cause we could just as easily say we raise the tension in this scene.
Oren: Yeah. Well, I mean, it would just be a case of book stakes versus chapter stakes versus scene stakes, right? Like the stakes of the entire book are if this guy is going to turn the everyone into zombies, and then, in this scene, the first stake was “Can I get through the swamp because I need to get to the other side?” And then, oops, there’s a big ‘ol alligator. And now the stakes are, “Do I not get eaten by an alligator?” And that is raising the stakes within that scene.
Chris: Now, tension wise, I would consider tension to be additive, right? Because the alligator conflict is very immediate, right? Whereas the world is not about to end right now. So I would… Like, if we’re looking at pacing, as far as how your story goes, that would be raising tension even though the stakes are lower for this child arc of defeating the alligator so that you can go save the world. So you would in fact be generally raising tension by doing that, but stakes are kind of on a per arc or per conflict basis. So those would be like a different set of stakes than the book stakes.
Wes: Okay. That helps.
Chris: And fractals are complicated. They’re gonna get ya.[Laughter]
Chris: But yeah, so other… That brings us to other ways to increase tension, if your stakes are already as high as they can be. Again, the alligator means that it’s harder to save the world, the likelihood of saving the world, when the first thing you gotta do is even survive this alligator, it’s more difficult.
Chris: It’s the immediacy of the problem. Urgency, we haven’t talked about yet, but that’s another way that… another important ingredient for attention is some level of urgency. And so you have a deadline. “Okay, we gotta do a thing by midnight tonight, or the world’s going to end.” And then you’re like, “Wait, now we only have an hour.” That’s raising tension. Even if the stakes are the same. So there’s other levers you can pull, but… Yeah, that’s… You can only go so far with stakes. And if you have multiple books in a series and you can’t raise the stake from book to book anymore, because they’re already at epic level, then you just, you need to do something different with your next book.
Oren: Usually that means it’s time to change what is happening, because then at least you can kind of reset and start fresh, because that was another problem that Abhorsen had is that in the first book, the guy that they’re fighting is a super powerful magic person. And then in the next book, they’re fighting another super powerful magic person. And they say this one is stronger, but, by any measure that you, as the reader, can actually tell, they seem about the same. And so even though we’re saying that there… that this is harder because this guy is stronger, it doesn’t really seem any harder. It seems about the same, because, unless you are really good at communicating in-story power levels, which is difficult, different boss strengths are going to kind of fade together the higher they go.
Chris: Whereas, if you had a big political struggle and maybe that would lead to a evil magic artifact coming together. Then your conflicts are significantly different. There’s more novelty there and you can get away with not having stakes that are higher, if you have a continuous series that you just, again, make the conflict significantly different, so you have something new to offer.
Oren: Shall we talk about how to make sure the stakes matter? ‘Cause we talked a little bit about if they’re personal stakes and building attachment and the characters’ matters. If they are life-threatening, it’s easier to make life-threatening stakes matter, but you still need to establish who these people are, right? People will… the reader will care more about the death of a major named character than they will about the death of some mooks. Or if it’s a bunch of people, you can work to give them sympathetic traits. You can invest the reader in them in some capacity, especially if the reader spends time with them.
Oren: This was one of the problems that Mass Effect 3 had, because Mass Effect 3 starts with a Reaper attack on Earth, but, in the Mass Effect series, you’ve never actually been to Earth. As far as you know, Earth is two rooms in a hall. [Wes and Chris Laugh] So there isn’t really that much connection there as opposed to connection with places like the Citadel in Mass Effect, where you spend a lot of time.
Oren: That’s why, in Teen Wolf, it matters more when they threaten Beacon Hills than the entire world. ‘Cause I have no context for the entire world in Teen Wolf, but I do know about Beacon Hills and I know it has a lot of rundown, industrial sections and a lot of nightclubs.
Wes: So many nightclubs![Laughter]
Oren: I’m very familiar with its really active rave scene.[Laughter]
Chris: Another (besides just the overall attachment to characters) is the protagonist should care. If the protagonist does not care about the bad things happening, it’s very hard for readers to care. And that’s not the only reason you should have the protagonist care. They should also care, because you need them to have agency and actually take action and solve problems. And it’s hard to get them to do that if they don’t care. But if they’re just like, “Okay, well, I don’t care if the bad things happen. I’m just gonna, you know… I’m getting paid.” It’s gonna be a little harder to get the audience to care.
Oren: This is why literally every story that starts with the protagonist being like, “I’m just here for a paycheck,” ends with them getting emotionally attached to whatever they’re doing. Okay? Literally every story does this, because otherwise it would be boring.
Wes: So boring. [Mimicking gruff character] “Thanks for my paycheck.”[Laughter]
Oren: Can you imagine the Mandalorian, if he liked, never developed an emotional bond to baby Yoda? What? Why would you even watch that show? You wouldn’t.
Wes: It’d be over in two episodes.
Oren: A Memory Called Empire actually had that problem where, at the end, theoretically the stakes are still about keeping Lsel Station independent (which is where the protagonist is from), but the conflict changes to be about who’s going to be the next emperor of like the space Rome, but the protagonist doesn’t care about that. She has no emotional or practical reason to care who the next emperor is. But that’s what the author was interested in and so she just has the protagonist dash headlong into this coup in progress to try to keep the original emperor in power for some reason.
Wes: Yeah, and the main contender to the throne, One Lightning, doesn’t even appear in the story. And had we learned that he in fact did want to acquire more space territory, then there was a reason, but we learned nothing about him.
Oren: There were some obvious things that we could do here. Right? We could be like, “Well, the current emperor won’t annex Lsel, but One Lightning will, so we need to stop One Lightning from taking over.” But that’s not what they wanted to do for whatever reason. Instead, it was pretty clear the current emperor was also going to annex Lsel. That whole ending is a mess, but one of the things about it that’s a mess is that the protagonist has absolutely no investment in this conflict that she is running headlong into.
Wes: Yeah, something else to get back to some low stakes… And I know this is subjective, but how believable do you guys think raising stakes are to understand that perhaps the character arc is really strongly connected to the stakes in that a sense of pride, reputation, belief, like that is really what’s on the line? Love and money and stuff, but how believable is it…I don’t want to say these days, but you know what I mean? [Laughs] Like, [imitates gruff character again] “Ah,, but my sense of self worth is on the line here, and that’s a really important stake, and who am I, if I’m not this person anymore?”
Oren: So, if you have a story about someone getting challenged to a duel and it’s like, “I have to fight this duel. My honor is at stake!”
Wes: Does that raise the stakes for readers? Because I’m leaning on no…
Oren: It depends… hashtag…
Wes: I mean, yeah, I guess it depends.
Oren: On its own, those would not be very compelling. If you have a story about someone who is fighting a duel, simply because the code of aristocratic honor requires that they do so, because someone else said that the front paint job on their house is bad. You can have that character talk about honor all you want. It’s probably not going to help. But there are ways to make that important. If you show that this character would be humiliated and mocked, that would help. If you show that their family would lose something because they refused to fight. If you show that they… Depending on how you want to do this, you could have it be that what’s actually on the line is their adherence to this inherently violent code that could get them killed. But, in that case, you’re going to want a different ending than they win the duel; everyone’s happy.
Chris: I think a lot of cases when you have a character that is choosing to do something that is risky, like this duel, it’s often a matter of whether or not their motivation is compelling enough for the risk that they’re taking on. So in any duel scenario, assuming this is a duel to the death, right? Which not all duels are. [Laughs] Then, certainly the stake is whether they die in the duel, but there is definitely frustration from readers about the character, if they don’t feel like they have a compelling enough motivation to take that level of risk. But if they do, if we do have a compelling enough motivation to take that level of risk, then absolutely the character can, for instance, choose to go into danger, to accomplish their goals and solve their problems.
Chris: But their motivation has to be proportionate to what they’re taking on. And that’s the actual problem there, as opposed to the stakes. As far as whether that pride, for instance, could be high enough stakes for the story.. A short story… I mean, I even have a short story that’s about a woman who finds out her job is unnecessary and that was her entire identity. [Laughs] But it’s short. And that’s part of the issue is if you have a longer story, that tension levels do need to go up a little bit throughout. So I would worry mostly that if you had a novel that long, that if you don’t raise them somewhat throughout the story, it’s going to start getting really boring after a while. But yeah, it could carry a short story.
Wes: Yeah, that makes sense. I guess I’m hearing that these… the low stakes (I’m sticking with that; I love it). They need to be… there needs to be a sense of emotional resonance with the readers, otherwise… Like the dueling one is a great example. It’s like as a reader… Actually no, I remember in high school English reading The Crucible, and at the end of that, John Proctor dies because he doesn’t just lie. He just won’t lie. And so he leaves his pregnant wife alone, because he just won’t lie. It’s just like, [Laughs] I just had such a hard time with that, because I’m like, “Okay, so the implicit like stakes here is just death. You think lying is worse than death.” I just, as a reader, can’t get behind that. So that like dissonance didn’t make it very good for me.
Oren: [joking] Would you say that you “Kant get behind that?”[Chris and Wes groan]
Oren: Awww, yeaaah!
Wes: Oren, I hate you![Laughter]
Oren: Alright. We’re definitely out of time now.
Wes: Good, ‘cause I’m out of here.[Laughter]
Oren: All right. It is now our categorical imperative to end the podcast. But first, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we have Danita Rambo. She lives at therambogeeks.com. We’ll talk to you next week![Outro Music]
Outro: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening/closing theme: “The Princess who Saved Herself” by Jonathan Coulton.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?