What are the things that matter to your characters? What things matter to your readers? After we get the obligatory ambiguity out of the way, we settle into talking about the “stakes” and the escalation thereof.
As authors, we want our readers to feel that something is at risk, and that action on the part of the protagonist is important. It might only be important to the protagonist, but whether the world is at stake, or just one person’s reputation, the reader needs to believe that this matters.
In many outlining techniques (three-act structure, seven-point story structure, Hollywood formula) the writer is told to “raise the stakes” at certain points. So, not only must we put things at risk, we must find ways to either increase the amount of risk, or increase the character response to the risk already present.
We talk about the sorts of things that can be treated as “stakes” in the stories we tell, and how we can go about raising those stakes.
Raise the stakes without resorting to risks to reputation, livelihood, or mental health. Or explosions. Don’t use those, either.
Control Point: Shadow Ops, by Myke Cole, narrated by Corey Jackson