Monday, September 15, 2014

Where are the Stakes?

No, not those kind of steaks, but they do look delicious. And no, I don't mean the vampire kind of stakes either. I'm talking about your story's stakes.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've done a fair amount of critiquing for Pitch Wars and Write on Con and the one thing I saw missing most often from queries were the stakes of the story. And here’s the thing, while it was one of the most common things left out, it’s probably one of the most important parts of a query or pitch.

So what do we mean when we say we want to know what the stakes of the story are?

In general stakes means answering one or more of the following questions:

What happens if your main character fails?

What is keeping your main character from succeeding?

Will something bad happen if they do succeed?

In more specific terms your answer to those questions shouldn't be something like saving the world, or death of your main character. Cause let's face it, the world almost always gets saved and your MC almost always lives. Those stakes aren't very exciting are they?

So really dig into your main character and think about what their deepest desires are in the story. What are they really trying to accomplish? And if they fail, how personal can you make the punishment? Is their family in harm’s way? Are they going to lose a best friend? A lover? An arm? Something else? Get creative here.

While certain death or the end of the world really sucks, they are pretty common catastrophes in books. If you really want the reader to connect and care about your character give them stakes that are super close to your main character's heart. When you break your main character's heart, you break the reader's heart too. And that's a character your reader will follow anywhere. So dig deep into your story and find those stakes.

Well close enough! What's at stake in your story?


Mirka Breen said...

Thank you for this, Jamie. I'm taking a fresh look at my query.

Jamie Krakover said...

You're welcome.

cleemckenzie said...

Break their hearts, but don't off 'em! Yes. Great advice.

Jamie Krakover said...

haha thanks. Yeah no killing em... unless it's absolutely necessary ;)

Anna Staniszewski said...

Yes, indeed. When I critique stories, that's also an issue I see come up over and over. I try to remind people that stakes aren't just about what characters have to lose but also about what they have to gain. Without either of those, there's no reason to keep reading!

Jamie Krakover said...

100% agree. there's always more than one thing at stake. It's always about what's to gain and what's to lose.

Anonymous said...

This made me think of one of Kurt Vonnegut's rules on writing: "Your character has to want something, even if it's only a glass of water." For some reason that stays with me. Thanks!

Jamie Krakover said...

yes! Every character always wants something.