By David E. Sharp
Stakes are all about what’s on the line in your story. But the only thing really at stake is your reader’s attention. It’s part of our job to readers invested in our story. If we do it well, we might even keep them on the edge of their seat.
Anyone who has kept up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows this style. Stakes went from life-threatening in the early movies to world-threatening in the early Avengers movies to put the entire universe at peril. Harry Potter took this route, too, moving from a story about a boy going to wizard school to an epic wizarding war with a higher body count than Die Hard.
Still, I’m not convinced this is the best way. You can find several stories that made it work. But I find when I’m reading a story about the universe in jeopardy, it’s just too big for me to wrap my feels around. I’m not saying I want the universe to end, but more significant stakes become incomprehensible at a point. What’s the difference between billions and trillions from a reader’s standpoint? They’re both just unfathomable.
I’ve seen a lot of stories based around emotionally sensitive, hot-button topics that require trigger warnings. These can be essential stories to help us grapple with complex issues, and I have seen some written well. But I have also seen books that load up on trigger warnings, piling them on like power chords in an 80s hair band. As a reader, this turns me right off of a book.
Emotional topics are emotional for a reason. We need books to address them, but we need those books to manage them well. They may empower the stakes, but avid readers are wary of being emotionally manipulated. Proceed with caution.
Stories featuring personal stakes focus on what is at risk for a character regardless of whether it is also vital to other people. It’s less about tapping into the reader’s passions and more about connecting the reader to the character’s passions. Can you make readers care about something they otherwise wouldn’t because the imaginary people you write about do? Yes, you can.
And I believe this is the best way. I will never forget the birthday my 6-year-old asked for a balloon. (This was his big request). I bought one for him that morning and tied it around his wrist to keep it safe. The balloon attendant must not have secured the balloon to the string very well, though. It slipped off and floated into the sky the moment we got home. Did I care about a balloon? Not so much. Did I care about how my son cared about a balloon? Well, it became my personal mission to find him the best damn birthday balloon I could find before we accomplished anything else that day.
Obviously, your character probably cares about something more important than birthday balloons. Whatever it is, it’s probably something personal, something relatable, and it is something that will make your character real to your readers. And if you use it well, you won’t need to blow up a planet to make an impression.