Raising the Stakes – Fiction Tips

When writing we can often fall in love with our characters and stories, which isn’t such a bad thing.

This can, however, become a problem if we become so enamoured with our stories that we forget that something needs to be happening for them to be interesting. After all a story is a series of events, a narrative or an experience told from the perspective of one or more characters’.

  • So how can we increase the excitement in a story?
  • How do we make it important for someone to read until the end?

1. Relating to the characters


Image by paulbence via Flickr

Your reader will usually need to feel some sort of connection to the character in order to care about what happens to them. Oddly one of the best ways for someone to connect with your character is to show their difficulties. People will identify with characters that are going through struggles, they will identify with the universal motivations, survival, overcoming adversity, improving a bad situation, saving someone they love, protecting someone they love etc. Even if you make you character not likeable they may be funny or they must have something that makes the reader want to continue reading and either; root for them, hope they get their comeuppance or wonder where the story will go.

2. Raising the stakes 

A character who needs to stop an asteroid hitting Earth and destroying all life has a higher need for success than someone who badly wants to redecorate their house but then the stakes could be higher if the person who wants to redecorate must redecorate to please a violent, overbearing husband who demands absolute cleanliness in his home. Stakes are what’s at risk for the character. The reader must believe that it’s very important for the protagonist to succeed or must at the very least desire for them to achieve their goals. These can be emotional goals, mental goals or physical goals. Danger can be subtle, implied dangers or very obvious dangers – like a threat on their life. The point is that the reader is driven by a desire to follow the story and find out what happens to the characters.

3. Emotions 

Romeo and Juliet.

Image via Wikipedia

Just as in the previous two points, emotions are important to a story, whether it’s because of their extremes or their absence. Particularly in romantic fiction and young adult, emotions play a large part in the heightened feeling of addiction the readers have while reading it. This is largely because the stories involve a lot of fantasy and keep drawing people back time and time again for that `fix’. That doesn’t mean that every person in your story needs to be overly emotional but they do need to have some essence of humanity, even in characters who aren’t human. The only time this doesn’t apply in when you want to highlight the lack of humanness in a story, such as in a sci-fi story. The best way to balance this is usually to include a human character around the inhuman one. For example, in `I, Robot‘ (the film) we have a human protagonist examining the nature of humanity and of the soul in machines. Often this serves to allow the reader to feel as if they are a part of that story, the human reflecting their own views and opinions and in effect being their eyes through the story.

4. Pay-off

Many people like certain types of books because they get some feeling of reward from it. Whether that’s romantic reward, the experience of the story, the opening of their mind to new concepts or just a mental reflection that they can apply to the world around them. In fiction writing you will often hear of a `pay-off’. In terms of readers, this is their reward for reading. It’s where they get something out of the story. Think about it like this: The reader has diligently followed through the plot, they have followed the author’s lead and paid attention, now they want it to have been worth it. They want to finish the book with a feeling of, `that was a great book’ or `that was really interesting,’ or even `that was so exciting’.  They might want the bad guy to lose and the good guy to win or the guy to get his girl. This is their pay-off and is usually what they’re reading for.It’s because of this that people will often put a book down very quickly.  If they start to believe early on that they won’t get anything out of it or that it won’t be worth the effort, they’ll find it hard to continue. It’s also part of the reason that people can have different tastes in books and one person’s bad novel could be someone else’s masterpiece. It depends a lot on what they like and what they want.

5. Universal Themes 


These are ideas or concepts that transcend time and place. Things like `love conquers all’ and `good guy vs bad guy’ are common examples but it can be more complex than that and apply to things like the experience of unemployment or emotional issues. These help  with the previous points I’ve made, in that people will recognize something they can understand, at least on some level, and will consider the viewpoint of it that they are being given.

Putting it into Practise

The above points are all used in fiction but most of the time you won’t be doing these things consciously. That’s why you will often hear writer’s saying that they write stories that they would want to read. They know what would be interesting or fulfilling without always thinking about it.

One writing exercise that you could do if you are struggling in this area is to think of what you would want to read about. When you watch your favourite TV programme, imagine creating an episode or story arc for it. What would you like to see happen? Could you draw out the pay-off so that the reader needs to hold out longer for it or do you need to give them a bit more earlier on?

 Remember don’t allow yourself to think too much about this while writing otherwise you’ll forget to enjoy the process. This sort of thing is for later in your revisions and for learning about writing. Don’t forget to allow yourself to get excited, to get happy, to get sad and to get exhilarated with your work. Ride the rollercoaster with your characters and allow yourself that connection.


4 thoughts on “Raising the Stakes – Fiction Tips

  1. Awesome article. I especially like your example of redecorating the house vs the asteroid. The situation can make or break an entire story.

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