When creating tension, one of the central considerations is always the question of what is at stake. Stakes–whatever it is that’s on the line–are what keep the characters from simply walking away from the plot, as well as a big part of the story’s sense of danger. As such, knowing how to set the stakes is a vital part of storytelling.
It helps to think of the stakes in terms of potential losses and gains. Consider:
- What does your character have to lose if they don’t complete the quest?
- What do they hope to gain if they do?
- How important are these things to the character in question?
- How likely is it that they will succeed?
When choosing what is going to be at stake, make it personal. No matter how little is on the line at the beginning of the story, the characters should be personally invested. Provide a reason why they, as an individual, would take an interest in the plot. The stakes are exactly as high as your characters make them out to be. If the characters are mildly disinterested in saving the president, most readers will be too.
The stakes should follow logically from the conflict. As obvious as this seems, it’s an easy mistake to make. We’ve all seen these stories:Lucy needs to recover the Lost Stapler of Sha’ar to defeat the evil raxgnor. If she doesn’t find it, all is lost and the world will end.
But no one bothers to explain why failing to slay the monster means the end of the world. Nor is it made clear why her victory should hinge on the Lost Stapler. There’s no obvious link between the quest and it’s end result. Establish a clear connection between what the characters need to do and what will happen if they do or do not follow through. This alone will smooth over questions about character motivation and close a multitude of plot holes.
From the inciting incident onwards, there should always be something at stake. This can be something as small as unanswered questions or the risk of hurting someone else’s feelings. It can be as big as the fate of the world. What matters is that if there isn’t anything on the line, there’s nothing to pull the characters forwards and nothing to stop them from turning back. You cannot wait to establish that something is at stake because if there are no stakes there is no tension. If there is no tension, you don’t have a story. What you have is called fluff.
This is especially true of eleventh hours plot twists. As I mention in another article, if the readers don’t know that something is at stake, it doesn’t matter if the entire universe was hanging in the balance all along. If there is no tension from the outset, you cannot count on readers to stick around for the next three hundred pages to find out why everything the characters did was secretly important.
Even when they don’t have the full picture, readers should always be able to identify something that is at stake.
This means making the stakes concrete. No vague premonitions of danger. If (and only if) you have legitimate plot reasons for refusing to show the danger, the reader must be given evidence that something is amiss. A premonition looks like the hero deciding that today’s a bad day to be in the basement because they have a funny feeling about things. Evidence is gouge marks in the stairs, a funny smell on the air, and a missing house pet. One of these things provides a strong character motivation that can be converted into further action, as well as a sense that they might be in serious danger. The other is a heavy handed, artificial way of creating tension that doesn’t actually put the hero at risk.
Bear in mind that the stakes have to rise as the story goes on. Once the story has started, you may not lower the stakes. Leave room for the conflict to escalate.
Writing like a boss: The stakes should match the scope of the story. As a rule, your characters should never need to save any more of the world than the readers are acquainted with. If your characters are players on the international stage, saving a single town is a low stakes endeavor because they have much bigger things to worry about. If they are small town locals who never go more than a few miles from home over the course of the story, saving the world becomes a low stakes endeavor because the characters neither know or care about the rest of the world.