Sunday, August 15, 2010

Stakes - Make 'Em Big or... well... your story will suck

And not in the good way! :-)

I can't tell you how many people I coach/critique that when I ask them what their stakes are in the first act and they look at me funny.

Well, ok, that happens frequently, but they also clearly do not know what I am talking about.

Everyone seems to have a vague sense of what stakes are; events that worsen the situation for your Hero, except they are so much more than that.

A good example is that in Act 1 your finger is being threatened to be cut off. In Act II, your arm is at risk. In Act III your head is on the chopping block.

Many times in action books the sequence of escalation is the Hero's life is in danger. Then the Hero's loved ones. Then the community or world is imperiled.

This not only applies to action novels, but even dramas/literary works. Usually the escalation for those genres is: The Hero's pride is in jeopardy, then his heart, then his soul.

You should be able to point to specific characters/forces/situations in each Act that acts as an escalator. If you can't, then more than likely there isn't enough threat in your story.

Remember the stakes must go UP each act. Each act's stakes must grind the Hero down a little bit more. Make it seem more impossible for your Hero to ever see the light of day.

Now, instinctively most people do this at the darkest hour. And most even up their game at the Tentpole.

It is the first Act, and most importantly the first chapter, that many don't make sure they have clearly defined stakes.

Look at your own work. What are the stakes in your first chapter? What risk is your Hero in? Where is the source of tension?

Now, the only caveat to this advice is that sometimes you have to build you Hero up before you bring him down so this first chapter may have him: win the lottery, get a juicy assignment, sleep with the girl.

This is one of those the higher they are, the harder they fall type situations.

But remember, that is building up process is done with a purpose and rapidly the stakes (taking away not only everything they just 'won' but everything else near and dear to them is at risk) must be escalated.

So either you need to be building your Hero up for a fall or putting the screws to him IN THE 1st ACT! If you aren't; you've got a problem (fixed by stakes luckily :-)

Want to see how I ratcheted up the stakes in Plain Jane?

Click here to read 50 pages for FREE (that way you can see if I followed my own 'first chapter' advice)

And if you wish to purchase the thriller, here is a 50% off coupon: RH88E

Thanks again and see you next week!!!


  1. Great advice, thanks for posting!

  2. Great post and something important for a writer to realize.

  3. This is a great post! This is story building success.