All About the Stakes

I recently finished the first draft of the sequel to Aluminum Leaves. The beginning was pretty good. I thought the end was pretty good too; the plot threads came together in something that looked like woven cloth rather than a snarled thicket. Unfortunately, that left the middle, which dragged and sagged. Worse, it was boring.

I had more exposition than I needed. This is largely what a first draft is for me — a way to write down everything everything I need, and then decide what the story needs. So yes, there was too much talking and summary writing, but the real problem with the middle was more fundamental. The characters in the middle section forget what the stakes were.

Well, that’s not fair. I forgot what their stakes were.

It seems silly to say “stakes matter,” because of course they do. But I guess I mean, they really do. They don’t have to be global or heroic. They have to grow organically from your character and be part of that character’s motivation.

In my case, the second part of the book follows Erin and Trevian (or, as I like to think of them, E&T), the MCs from Aluminum Leaves. They are on a quest to save Trevian’s world from an inter-dimensional invasion. Those seem like pretty big stakes. Erin, in particular, would probably have some strong opinions about the need to do this thing, shut down the portal, and stop the invasion force. You’d think, anyway. In the first draft, though, she spends more time leafing through old manuscripts from Trevian’s world and debating vocabulary with a local scholar.

Part of the problem is that the plot and the timeline require E&T to be stuck in one place for several days. What I’d missed about that was what kind of emotional toll it might take on Erin, and what she would say about the delays that slow down their immediate, necessary project.

I could say that I took it for granted that the reader would remember that the stakes were high, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I forgot that the stakes were high.

And by the way, if the reader cares more about the outcome than the character does, you’ve got a story problem on your hands.

On some level I knew the tension wasn’t right because I planned from the beginning to have a couple of outside attacks from folks trying to get the artifact. And those are needed for plot reasons, so they are still in there, but they did not substitute for the real tension the story needed. A second observation; if you have to drag in a lot of outside action to create the tension, once again you’ve probably got a story problem.

And here, I’m going to put something I saw on Writer Twitter the other day, and I can’t remember who said it, “Action isn’t tension. Action is the relief of tension.”


On the other end of the “stakes” continuum was Aideen, Trevian’s sister, who is back in Trevian’s home town. Aideen doesn’t know about inter-dimensional invasions, or inter-dimensional anythings. Her father had a near-fatal accident; suddenly she is on the verge of losing the family company. These are hardly global stakes, but somehow, I convinced people (my writers workshop, anyway) that they were real. Mainly, Aideen cared about these stakes, and the early chapters show her as a person who tries to do the right thing. It’s not like she’s J.R. Ewing, and the folks who want to take over the company are bad guys.

A lot of Aideen’s identity is wrapped up in the company, but so too is the well-being of her town. It’s not a big and flashy a goal as “saving the world from an invasion,” but it’s real.


What have I learned?

Don’t forget the stakes. Don’t let the character forget the stakes.

Make the stakes something that matter to the character, and make us see why they matter. Yes, making the cheer-squad in high school can be a goal that really raises the stakes for a character, if that desire reveals character.

If you’re feeling the need to throw in car bombs, random kidnap attempts, shootings, etc, your writer-mind might be telling you that you aren’t focused on the heart of the story; what drives your characters. (There might be an argument to be made that this doesn’t apply to thrillers– but I’m not convinced.)

Action is not a substitute for conflict, and it doesn’t increase the tension — it relieves it.


Now I’m going to go off and discover if I have correctly applied these insights to my own work! I spent a big chunk of time on the middle section earlier this week — now I’ll see if it paid off.

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