It’s a quote you may have heard before, and likely it resonates with you because you know that sometimes the greatest adventures lie just beyond the choice of risk.
This is true in life and it is also true for characters in fiction.
Without some measure of risk, a character cannot experience true growth. Without growth, there’s no adventure. And without adventure, there’s no story.
If you’re a writer and you feel like your story is just not escalating or growing your character, then follow the advice below. Excerpted from my latest release, Troubleshooting Your Novel, here are a few thoughts on raising the stakes for your character:
You’re playing a game of cards, and the stakes keep getting higher.
Are you all in or not?
The most intriguing and compelling characters aren’t the ones who play it safe and hedge their bets, but the ones who gamble more than they can afford to lose. A person who never risks will never know the sting of loss. Some people might say he’s better off because of that.
Your readers would not.
Let your character take risks—and sometimes, let him get burned.
The stakes are simply who gets hurt, in what way, and how deeply if the protagonist fails to accomplish his goal. Always consider the consequences: what disaster will befall him in this scene if he fails in his pursuit?
If nothing vital is at stake, why would it ultimately matter if he loses?
And here’s the key: The stakes need to be high enough for readers to care, but also believable enough for them to buy into what’s happening.
Because of the narrative force of escalation, you’ll continue to raise the stakes as the story progresses—not necessarily in terms of how many people are affected, but by how deeply the failure or loss impacts the main character.
So, while it would certainly raise the stakes to plant a bomb in the middle of a stadium filled with fifty thousand fans, it’s not necessary to put that many people in danger. Depending on the story, that type of scenario might come across as completely unbelievable. But putting the life of the one person he loves on the line would make it personal and it might be all you need.
The higher you raise the stakes, the more you strain credulity. This is one reason thrillers are often longer books—they have incredibly high stakes, so the writer needs to take the time to set up a world in which those stakes are not just believable, but inevitable.
What’s at stake in your story? Justice? A relationship? Someone’s sanity or well-being?
Life itself can be at stake, the future of the planet can be at stake, and so can the destiny of the entire universe. (I’m not sure you can raise the stakes much higher than that. But if you can make it believable, go for it.)
Think in terms of “or else” and “if … then.” For example, “We have to accomplish this or else [the terrible consequences will come to pass].” Or, “If we don’t accomplish this, then [the terrible consequences will come to pass).”
The security or well-being of any aspect of the character’s existence can be at stake. Ask, “What part of her would die (in a literal or a symbolic sense) if she fails?”
Defining the stakes will also likely help you define your premise, which is usually a combination of stakes plus dilemma. (However, don’t think that you need to do this before you start writing your story. Often, the premise will only become clear to you as your story develops.)
The more specific the tasks, timing, and consequences, the sharper the story will be.