Show Don’t Tell: Stakes

Have you ever read a book and wondered, why did the author include this scene? You think maybe by the end of the book the scene will make sense, but you reach the end and still you’re left puzzled. You can’t put your finger on exactly why, but it feels as though that scene had little or nothing to do with what was going on in the story. In fact, if you plucked that scene out of the book, the story would remain exactly the same. One of the main reasons that readers can be left with that feeling is because a scene doesn’t connect to the stakes of the novel.

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External Stakes

The external stakes of your story are what your character externally desires. For example, let’s say your character is on the typical fantasy hero’s journey to search for and obtain a rare and possibly powerful object. The external stakes in that situation would refer to the hero physically obtaining the object and what they risk if they are able or unable to obtain it. Perhaps the object is a book with a spell that will heal an ailment that is plaguing this world (or perhaps more specifically a character that your protagonist cares for). The external risks for obtaining the object would be that the object is cursed or that the quest to obtain it puts the protagonist in mortal peril. One risk for not obtaining the object would be that the protagonist would be unable to save the people of this world from this ailment. In a contemporary sense, the external stakes could refer to anything from something as simple as getting a promotion at work to a character running away to start their lives over.

The main stakes of the story will be the same as your character’s main goal or desire throughout the book and what they risk by either achieving or not achieving that goal. Additional stakes throughout the novel will be other things that your protagonist comes to risk along their journey to obtain their main goal. This could be anything from a friend of theirs resenting their quest (which risks their friendship with the protagonist) or even the simple stakes of life or death.

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Internal Stakes

The internal stakes of your manuscript refer to any internal desires your protagonist has and what is preventing them from achieving those desires. Let’s refer back to the fantasy hero’s quest for a healing book as an example. In that instance, while the external stakes refer to the hero obtaining the book, an example of the internal stakes could be the hero’s desire to right a wrong, a time that they could have saved someone but didn’t. That, through the act of finding the book, the hero believes that they will right that wrong.

If the latter is the case, the question then becomes what are the internal risks of both obtaining and not obtaining the book. Although the external risks involve saving lives, the internal risks are completely different. The internal risk of not finding the book would be that they are unable to heal from this past sense of guilt that they’re holding onto. And one internal risk of finding the book is that, though they’re able to heal people externally, the fulfillment of the quest doesn’t alleviate the protagonist of their guilt.

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Plot Points

The main way to show rather than tell your readers about the stakes of your story is to make sure your novel is expertly plotted. The stakes of your novel should be at the core of each of your main plot points. Every plot point should connect to at least one of the stakes of your story and your main plot points should directly link or relate to the main stakes of your story. This means that your reader should be keenly aware of what is at stake throughout your story because, if you’ve done your job right, everything that they’re witnessing unfold throughout your story should connect to those stakes.

The best way to make sure to keep track of this is to include the stakes in your outline. If you’ve already made your outline, go back and review it again. Write down what the main stakes of your story are and what the additional risks are as well. Then go through your plot points chronologically and make sure they directly relate to what is at stake in your story. If you find ones that don’t connect, you’ve either stumbled upon an easy scene to edit out of your novel or you need to go back and rewrite to make sure the stakes are clear and connected.

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