3 Ways to Raise the Stakes in Fiction

What separates good fiction from great fiction? That’s a good question, and it’s often not just one thing. In fact, it’s often the imperfections that make for great stories. That said, one problem hiding behind many well-written stories that don’t engage is this: There’s nothing at stake.

Or the stakes are very low. Or the stakes set at the beginning of the story are never adjusted upward. This may be a good thing for the characters, but it’s kind of boring for the readers. So how do you raise the stakes in fiction? Funny you should ask, because…

Here are 3 ways to raise the stakes in fiction:

  • Pursuit. Whether it’s a romance or an adventure story, pursuit is a good device for upping the stakes. The pursuer can be the protagonist or the antagonist (or both!), but this helps give focus to a story and motivation to the characters. Because some characters may be engaged in chasing while others are engaged in escaping. This tool works in nearly every genre and is the most effective when the pursuit lasts to near the end of the book. The pursuit could end with the protagonist and antagonist facing off, or the guy getting the girl.
  • Take away small victories. It’s good form to let your characters find success in fiction. However, make these small victories short lived, and you’ll constantly be raising the stakes. For instance, let the spy find her contact only to have him killed before she can get anything out of him. Let the person running from zombies find a car that starts only to realize the brakes are out. These little twists keep the characters (and readers) are on their toes.

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  • Reveal one layer at a time. Avoid revealing everything behind a character from the start. That makes for poor fiction for a couple reasons. One, the pace is stifled by explanation. Two, there’s nothing new to learn later. For instance, hide the motivation of a secondary character (some random hunter) who’s helping the protagonist (a lost princess) until it’s revealed later that the hunter is only helping the princess to lure the dragon out of a cave–or whatever the hidden motivation might be. Small revelations about characters and plot help raise the stakes throughout the story without making the reader feel cheated.

If you employ these three strategies, your chances of writing great fiction will increase dramatically.

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