Considering the Stakes of Your Story

As a writer, I’m often thinking about more than one thing at a time – and sometimes, a random phrase can spark an idea or a train of thought I’d not previously considered. This happened a week ago when I heard the phrase ‘Penny-Ante’. For those of you who are not Poker players, penny-ante is poker played for low stakes. First used in 1855 to mean ‘insignificant stakes’ (Etymonline, 2019). I’m not a poker player, so when I learned this new phrase my mind moved in a different direction. The insignificant stakes of recently read stories, and how to avoid this.

So, what are stakes when considering your story rather than your poker hand? In short, a stake is what is at risk of being lost, or learned, or changed within your story. Does the protagonist need to sacrifice something? Find something? Or change? More importantly, what will the consequences be? What will happen if Prince Charming never defeats the dragon? According to Writer’s Digest, there are three types of stakes that ‘drive novels’ (Maass, 2010). These are Personal Stakes, Ultimate Stakes, and Public Stakes. Personal Stakes are things that will immediately impact the protagonist. When an actor says, ‘but what’s my motivation?’ – a writer should be ready to answer this question. Even if they want to keep it hidden from the audience for the majority of the story. An example of this is Snape in the Harry Potter series. In the final book, we discover he has been helping Harry all along, because of the love he has for Harry’s mother. His motivation is his fear and mistrust of Voldemort. The immediate consequences for making the wrong choice was the death of Harry’s mother. The audience is constantly reminded of the immediate risk Voldemort poses on the characters siding with Harry. The personal stakes have been in place from the start and therefore actions responding to that are understandable. Personal stakes illustrate why an action must be performed and help develop inner conflict rather than simplistic plot conflict.

Ultimate Stakes are the consequences that impact the character’s views, perspectives and ideals. It’s the ‘I want to make a difference’ motivation, with consequences impacting more than the protagonist and their close allies. ‘At the moment of ultimate testing, we summon our deepest beliefs and swear that nothing will stop us.’ (Maass, 2010). This stake is used an awful lot by Hollywood blockbusters. Protagonists aren’t simply saving themselves and their villages, but the whole world. They’re not just learning a lie; they’re unravelling an entire government. It’s the stake Hunger Games, Divergent, Handmaid’s Tale and every other dystopian narrative tries to maintain, but the stumbling block arrives when consequences have to be implemented when those Ultimate Stakes aren’t achieved. Hunger Games and Divergent are written and directed for Young Adults, which means certain consequences cannot (depending on your publisher) be explored. Killing off characters is a swift and (relatively) painless experience. Torture is behind closed doors, and whilst the Ultimate Stakes are still in place, they’re intrinsically linked to the Personal Stakes of the main character. Otherwise, the audience will not empathise, and they’ll stop reading.

Public Stakes are the outward (as opposed to personal) obstacles that create consequences for the main character. It’s the moment when your character says, ‘it can’t get any worse,’ and then it does. They are ‘every day problems presented in an ordinary way’ (Maass, 2010) which could then lead to Ultimate Stakes. It’s often these middle-ground stakes that are neglected and then are a detriment to your story. I recently started reading Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin, a story about a witch and a witch hunter being forced to protect one another through marriage. As a concept, admittedly, not for everyone. But I’m interested in most Young Adult and Fantasy novels, so I was happy to give it my time. However, the personal, public and ultimate stakes within this story lack consistency. The witch is afraid of the witch hunter in chapter 1, but openly mocking him in chapter 3. The church, which is a formidable force within this government, is represented by bumbling fools. None of the characters fear any consequences, because they’re able to talk themselves out of any consequences on the next page. Sometimes, the next line.

What should have been considered? Historical context for witches and witch trials should always be considered when including these symbols within a story, even if the context is to be discarded. Men and women were tortured and killed by the church, they lived in fear that a false claim could lead to their death. People were God-fearing and strict, condemning all sorts of behavior, such as singing and dancing, which we accept as common place today. This stake, if used as a public, personal or ultimate stake, needs a clear foundation. We, as the audience, need to know that any misstep will result in consequences. For either side. It’s difficult to know for certain the context and perspectives your audience is taking in when reading your book. Clarify your stakes for them. Give them examples of consequences and rewards for the systems you’ve created amongst your characters. Because failure to do this will result in ‘insignificant stakes’, and a flat narrative.

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