11.24: Stakes!

We talk a lot about “raising the stakes” in our writing. When we say “stakes,” we’re referring to the things that keep our characters involved in the conflict, rather than just walking away and doing something else. We dig into what this really means, and how everyone in the story must be driven by things that they have at stake.

Liner Notes: in this episode we refer to the three character-development “sliders” model set forth in WX 9.13.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Jeff Cools, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 


An object, a character, and a genre. Look to your left and that’s your object. Check your bookshelf, and the first book that catches your eye is your genre. The character? Your best friend.

Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O’Brian, narrated by Barbara Caruso

10 thoughts on “11.24: Stakes!”

  1. Lies of Locke Lamora is a good example of a revenge plot with a strong secondary stake. The threat against the city is so omnipresent and horrible that it’s really easy to forget that Locke doesn’t actually give two figs for the city. His primary motivation for stopping the villain is revenge.

  2. Steaks on the grill? Stakes in a vampire? Staking the tent?

    No, no, no, just raising the stakes and keeping your characters in the game for your story! The frantic foursome put down their bets around a table at Phoenix Comic Con all about stakes for your storytelling! And you can read about it, either in the archives, or over here


    Then heat up the grill, get a hammer out to drive the point home, and raise your stakes! Or stand pat and show them?

  3. The discussion about stakes was good. But personally, I define stakes differently. As Mary said near the start, the stakes are whatever keeps a particular character involved in the story. I don’t think it has anything to do with good/bad, protagonist/antagonist, or character sliders. Every character must have a motivation for their actions, every character must have stakes.

    That’s just my opinion, though. It’s probably just a problem of semantics, so maybe we’re all right? ;D

    [transcript: http://wxat.tumblr.com/post/146008000363/s011e24-stakes%5D

  4. Another interesting play on stakes comes from the game The Last of Us. This is a MAJOR SPOILER if you haven’t finished the game, but there is a sacrifice-the-one-to-save-the-many plot that begins to take shape near the end. But the protagonist decides that even with the fate of humanity potentially in the balance he can not allow his companion to be sacrificed.
    What I found strange and refreshing about this story was that when the conflicting stakes became clear (save humanity or save your friend) the protagonist does not put the greater good above his own desire to save his friend. And his choice was not justified, as is usually done, by having some shadowy grey idea of greater good. The “villain” was trying to cure a plague that still threatened to wipe out humanity by honoring the noble desire of one person who wanted to sacrifice their self in an attempt to save virtually everyone else.
    It was interesting to see the protagonist make a choice that saves his friend but has terrible and far reaching implications for everyone else that does not give the usual epilogue showing how everything turned out for the best. Usually when I see this story there is a twist that vindicates the protagonist’s choice somehow, allowing them to have their cake and eat it too.

  5. The audience will care about the stakes if they find the character sympathetic.
    Even with villains and anti-heroes. That’s why in Dexter they gave him a family (his sister) and a code (only kill criminals) and a sense of humor. After all that we can sympathise with a serial killer.

  6. Wowie, Brandon, Mary–you MUST see Captain America: Civil War asap on the big screen (very worth it). The director/writing team combo of the Russo Brothers + Markus & McFeely are incredible storytellers who basically do everything you guys recommend for strong, fresh, meaningful storytelling. And yes, Civil War is like a lesson in how to make stakes INCREDIBLY personal for the people involved, and how those personal stakes hit an audience so much harder than the parallel global stakes that are involved. PLEASE WATCH IT because I really want to hear what you all have to say about the many, many excellent storytelling choices made that manage to make a gigantic ensemble film feel both intimate and provide story arcs and stand-up-and-cheer moments very every, single major character (i.e. there are no spear carriers, or martial arts film ninjas who dance in the background while the main 2 or 3 characters fight, etc).

  7. An interesting stake setup via motivation – at least, I think – shows up in Artemis Fowl.

    (Spoilers abound…)
    Throughout the entirety of the first book the main character is setup to be this sort of selfish, gold- and fame-seeking kid. Every so often, Eoin Colfer (the author of said book), takes these small moments to mention the character’s bed-ridden mother, but regardless of her presence, you still can only ever feel the character’s drive for gold/fame build until the very end of the story when he selflessly trades his fortune to save his mother, and realize that that was what it was all for in the beginning.
    In a strange way, Eoin Colfer changes the rising stake of the character getting his gold into this stake of saving his mother.

  8. This episode felt like a light-bulb moment for me. I looked at a recent big manuscript and realized exactly where I dropped the ball. Honestly, I wish you guys would go on for a whole month on this topic, because I wanted more on the idea that Dan (I believe) brought up about a character with two conflicting desires giving up one to bring about the nobler one–is it typical to then find a way to let the character have both anyway, or is it a staple I’ve never noticed that even happy endings have a bittersweet element to them?

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