There’s a reason preseason football games are dull, and it’s not just because we’re compelled to watch backups play for an entire half (sorry backups). It’s because they have no stakes.
Now consider the Super Bowl, a game which has the highest stakes in American professional sports. Winning that game means everything. Losing it could be the biggest disappointment in an otherwise outstanding career. (The Super Bowl is also made greater by the weird Doritos commercials, but that’s neither here nor there.)
As writers, we should write stories about the Super Bowl, not the preseason. That’s because stories are often at their best when everything’s on the line. The question is, how do we do it?
Let’s start with The Fellowship of the Ring. The story begins without any stakes (unless you’re particularly concerned about the success of Bilbo’s birthday party). However, we soon discover that Bilbo’s magic ring is actually the One Ring, the most evil artifact in Middle-Earth. Now we understand the stakes: If Sauron gets his Ring back, Middle-Earth is screwed. And when Frodo volunteers to take the Ring, he raises the stakes even further. That’s because at this point, we like Frodo. If he fails, he dies, and then we’re very sad.
Takeaway: Raise the stakes incrementally. Each successive event should provide more to lose and more to gain.
The trick is learning to raise the stakes by showing rather than telling. For example, imagine a character in a book says, “Dude. The stakes have never been greater.” No no no. Too heavy handed.
What’s a good way to suggest stakes rather than outright say them? Kill some characters. The great J.K. Rowling did so zealously in Harry Potter, starting with The Goblet of Fire. When Cedric Diggory died in this book, the stakes were clear: If you mess with Voldemort, you die. Such stakes had never before existed in the series.
It’s difficult, but raising the stakes can breathe new life into our stories. I’m still working on it. I think it helps to ask yourself some questions before sitting down to write. For example: What does my character’s quest mean to him or her? What happens if my character fails? What’s motivating my character to succeed?
We want to show the answers to these questions without telling. If readers have a clear picture of the stakes in their minds, they’ll better understand the gravity of every situation.
So let’s skip the preseason and play for the Super Bowl. Raise those stakes!
Kyle A. Massa is a speculative fiction author living in New York (upstate, not the city). His stories have appeared in numerous online magazines, including Allegory, Chantwood, and Dark Fire Fiction. To stay current with Kyle’s work, subscribe to his monthly email newsletter. He promises not to spam you.