Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

What’s at Stake? part 1

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Jun• 19•17

Storms whipped through the region last week, the weekend was mild,  and I woke up to a pearly sky and no rain in the forecast. Since we’ve already had temperatures in the 90s the respite from the heat suited me fine and suited my garden too although the weeds are now stampeding all over the place.

I wanted to get back to a topic I was discussing here last month about some of the underlying objectives in storytelling. So let’s start talking about the stakes in your story. Stakes are intrinsic to every story. No stakes, no story. Stakes create conflict and narrative drive. Stakes make readers care.

Recently I advised a client to read Timothy Eagan’s remarkable nonfiction book The Worst Hard Times. It’s about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the drought and monstrous wind storms that laid waste to vast, rich grasslands from Kansas to Texas. TGetty Imageshe choking dust created 50-foot sand dunes,  killed babies and old people and cattle, drove starving families from their homesteads, and forever changed the High Plains landscape. Eagan brings the catastrophe to life through accounts of survivors and clear-eyed facts. He describes the horrors of Black Sunday when a storm so dangerous swept precious soil all the way to Washington DC. The book is so thick with tension that you’re immersed in the happenings as if they’re unfolding now. The dust storms lasted a decade and ruined 100 million acres.

The book is  mostly about those who stayed in the wasteland, who rebuilt, who survived the nightmare when the sun was blocked out by black blizzards. And the cataclysm brought on a reckoning because humans had caused this disaster with sod-busting agricultural practices in the already arid High Plains with an already unforgiving sun. Imagine all those scarred acres and acres of grassland ruined, businesses and  banks and small towns wiped out. The emptiness of it all. The enormous stakes of it all. The greed behind it.

Play for Keeps

In the best stories the characters or people are playing for keeps. There’s a reason why The Hunger Game series sold millions. Children defending themselves against other murderous children? What could be more horrific and cruel? Ordinary citizens are the pawns of an evil and vindictive government. Because villains always play for keeps.

  • What is at stake in the story is the reason readers keep turning pages and audiences keep watching.
  • Stakes communicate what your characters has to lose–and this loss needs to matter.
  • Stakes reveal the risk and consequences involved.
  • Stakes imprison the characters within the story cauldron–in other words, he or she cannot simply walk away.
  • The reader or audience must always understand what’s at stake.
  • Stakes are why the protagonist wants to escape or change the situation he/she is in or win the game or obtain the goal. 
  • Underline the importance of goals & motivation.
  • Personal or internal stakes illustrate the why of what your protagonist wants to achieve.
  • Public/external stakes create bigger repercussions, consequences.
  • Stakes force characters to make difficult choices.
  • The larger the payoff, the bigger the stakes. The higher the threat, the bigger the stakes.
  • Often the best stakes require the protagonist to make a personal sacrifice.

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