Today’s guest post is by H.R. D’Costa, an author and writing coach specializing in story structure and story stakes.
Yep, it’s a thing. The scenario looks like this:
Readers discover your book, perhaps by browsing the categories on Amazon, perhaps through a Bookbub ad. And with so many enticements—
- steeply discounted price
- mouthwateringly gorgeous book cover
- compelling book description
—they click the buy button. But after the first chapter, the third chapter, or even the first half of your book, they abandon your novel—never to return again.
Therein lies the fatal flaw of the marketing tactics mentioned above. While they’re essential for readers to discover your book, they can’t get readers to finish your book. And if readers don’t finish your book, then all your savvy marketing plans are for naught.
On the other hand, if you create the kind of emotional experience that readers crave, they won’t be able to put your book down—and you’re one step closer to igniting word of mouth that can help you effortlessly sell your novel, month after month, year after year.
That’s why improving your craft is an essential component of your marketing strategy (although, at first glance, it might not seem like it). But what storytelling elements should you focus on?
I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.
With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.
Indeed, when you wield stakes wisely, you’ll create the emotional intensity that’ll make your book impossible to put down. The plotting tricks here (adapted from my writing guide Story Stakes) will show you what to do.
As a quick overview, here they are:
- If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.
- Build a subplot around the stakes.
- Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.
- Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.
- Take the personal stakes out of play last.
Before we dive in, a few caveats:
- This article doesn’t really discuss different types of story stakes. If you’re looking for something like that, here’s a convenient, printable list of 11 types of story stakes.
- I tend to use masculine nouns and pronouns (you may’ve noticed that already). But rest assured, as a female, I know females make amazing protagonists.
- Because films are more universal, I generally use examples from films to illustrate my points. However, the principles behind the examples apply equally as well to novels.
- The tips in this article are suitable for novels with elements of physical danger (i.e. thrillers, mysteries, etc.). In other words, the tips are less applicable if you write rom-coms, but you can still save them for future reference!
Okay, with those caveats sorted, let’s get to it.
1. If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.
The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.
However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.
That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.
The connection between readers and this subset creates a conduit for reader emotion to flow through, and thus carry over to the group as a whole. This way, the stakes remain high, and at the same time, they feel high.
To accomplish this, make sure readers get a chance to spend time with the stakes (the subset, to be clear) at the beginning of your novel. Give readers the opportunity to get to know and like the stakes—the same way you give readers an opportunity to know and like your protagonist. To create such an opportunity, consider starting your story with a celebration.
In the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the fate of all Middle-earth hangs in the balance. But audiences worry about the effect of evil on one area in particular: the Shire. Moreover, the connection between audiences and the Shire is formed by depicting preparations for a special birthday party.
Likewise, in Braveheart, William Wallace wants to free all of Scotland from the tyranny of King Edward I. But audience investment in this worthy goal emerges, in part, from their connection to Wallace’s own village—which they get to know through scenes depicting a wedding.
Once you’ve created a bond between readers and the stakes, you’re not home free yet.
If you don’t take the appropriate measures, this bond can slowly wither. Consequently, readers won’t be as emotionally invested in the climax, whose outcome will determine what’ll happen to the stakes.
To prevent this, take the time to fortify the reader-stake bond. Periodically remind readers about the stakes throughout your novel.
Just to be clear, the same techniques should be used even when your protagonist is only charged with saving one or two people (as opposed to a multitude). Forge a bond between readers and the stakes, then maintain it.
2. Build a subplot around the stakes.
Need to get your novel to the right length? Subplots are quite handy for that. You accrue even more benefits when you build a subplot around the stakes. That’s because doing so also enables you to accomplish the aims discussed above, namely:
- forming a connection between readers and a subset of the stakes
- bringing the stakes to the forefront of your story in a natural way (i.e. subplots = stake reminders)
To build a stake-based subplot, it might be useful to view it according to Scott Myers’s definition of the small story:
I read a lot of scripts, and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually feel something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise.
That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the big story is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.
To show you how you might integrate a small story into your own novel, let’s play around with the plot of Wonder Woman. In it, moviegoers got the “substantial saga” of World War I. But they didn’t get the “small story.” Let’s fix that.
In the film, Diana and Steve rescue a village which, despite their heroic efforts, is ultimately destroyed. Poignant stuff, to be sure. But now imagine how much more poignant it would be if a subplot were built around this village.
For example, the film could introduce this village to audiences long before Diana and Steve arrive there, and highlight the attempts of one or two villagers to survive amidst the chaos.
As in the actual film, the outcome of the war would hinge on Diana and Steve’s actions. But in this alternate version, audiences would feel the effect of those actions through their connection to the villagers.
Furthermore, because audiences have gotten to know the villagers through the small story, when Diana and Steve finally arrive on scene, audience joy over the rescue of the village is going to crest higher. At the same time, audience pain over the village’s ultimate destruction will cut deeper.
3. Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.
It’s a basic truth: By and large, readers invest more in your protagonist than in any other character. So when you use this plotting trick and make your stakes personal—when your protagonist’s potential failure directly affects him—your story will have greater emotional intensity. It’ll be even more difficult to put down.
Returning to The Fellowship of the Ring, the Shire is home to Frodo, one of the central protagonists. Because audiences have invested in him, the potential destruction of the Shire carries more emotional weight than if it were a place that wasn’t so near and dear to Frodo’s heart.
However, “skin in the game” means you usually have to go beyond a protagonist’s connection to a place and focus on his connection to a person. Someone close to him—
- love interest
—will die (or suffer other grave consequences) if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal.
At this moment, you might be recoiling from this idea. Indeed, many writers resist it because it occurs too often. That’s their argument, at least. But if you’ve done your job well—and readers have emotionally invested in your protagonist as well as in the stakes—then readers will be too engrossed in your novel to compare it to something else.
Think about the ending of Ant-Man. I doubt any members of the audience were thinking, “I can’t believe the hero’s daughter was taken captive by the bad guy.” The same exact thing happened at the end of Live Free or Die Hard.
No, I’d wager audience members were thinking, “How in the world is Scott going to save Cassie in time?”
If you still remain unconvinced, well, maybe you can try out the next plotting trick instead.
4. Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.
Here’s how this works: Although your protagonist has a dream, he hasn’t been pursuing it. He’s all talk (or thought), no action. Then the inciting incident comes along, bringing with it a new goal for the protagonist to pursue, the overall goal driving the main plot of the story.
Now, the protagonist can’t pursue his dream at all. That’s not an option anymore. Instead, he must save the world, save the day—whatever the overall goal may be. And now, failure carries double meaning.
It doesn’t just mean that the day won’t be saved. It also means that the protagonist, having lost all chance of pursuing his dream, will be consumed by regret. This, you’ll note, makes a bad situation feel even worse, which is why this trick is so effective at adding another emotional layer to your story.
To see it in action, study the film Collateral. If Max fails to outwit a hit man, Max will die, filled with regret. However, if Max succeeds, he’ll not only survive the night; he’ll also be able to start the limo business he has always dreamed about.
At first glance, the limo angle might not seem like it contributes much. But think about it. This dream, along with the specter of regret that accompanies it, is much more relatable than dealing with a psychopathic hit man. In other words, it creates another pathway for audiences to connect to the story, thereby supercharging their experience.
That’s not all. If you employ stakes of regret in your own novel, you won’t just be heightening its emotional intensity. You also might motivate your readers to take action and pursue their own dreams—before it’s too late.
5. Take the personal stakes out of play last.
Whenever your story involves general stakes and personal stakes, be careful about when you take the stakes out of play, i.e., bring them to a place of safety.
- If you take the personal stakes out of play first (e.g. the protagonist rescues her daughter—and then everyone in her daughter’s summer camp), your story ending will be anticlimactic.
- If you take the general stakes and the personal stakes out of play at the same time (e.g. the protagonist rescues everyone at summer camp, including her daughter), your ending won’t be anticlimactic (not for this reason, at least).
However, you will be missing out on an opportunity to elicit even more emotion from your readers.
To take advantage of this opportunity, take the general stakes out of play BEFORE the personal stakes (e.g., the protagonist rescues her daughter’s campmates, and then her daughter). Notice, to accomplish this, you’ll probably have to come up with a credible way to separate the personal stakes (in this case, the daughter) from the general stakes (the other girls at summer camp).
But why bother?
Remember, readers are emotionally aligned with the story’s protagonist. Consequently, they’re going to have a stronger emotional response when they see the protagonist rescue her daughter than when they see the protagonist rescue the other girls. By virtue of contrast, the latter half of the climax is going to feel escalated compared to its initial half. As a result, the reader experience—already intense—is going to feel even more intense.
Confession: This plotting trick isn’t like the others. Whether you use it at the climax or not, readers aren’t likely to put down your novel at this point. They’ve come too far to throw in the towel now.
Even so, the tactic is still valuable to apply. With it, you’ll prove to readers that you know how to prolong the tension and deliver a roller-coaster ride, right up until the last minute. So when they eventually walk away from your story—not because they’ve abandoned it, but because they’ve reached THE END, and that’s what they’re supposed to do—they’ll eagerly search for the other books you’ve written.
A happy ending, in more ways than one!
Note from Jane: For more tips on how to use story stakes, check out Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa.
A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa (a.k.a. HRD) is an author and writing coach who specializes in story structure and story stakes. (That wasn’t her initial intention, however. In fact, she almost became a lawyer. Twice.) She is the author of eight writing guides, including Sizzling Story Outlines and Story Stakes, which one Amazon reviewer described as “a must-have in your top 10 books on writing.” For practical, actionable writing tips designed to help you keep readers glued to your pages, visit her website scribemeetsworld.com, which is also home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet (downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world).