What do we mean by high stakes in a story? Stakes are what the characters risk as they move through the action of the story.
This is different from conflict. If someone asks if your stakes are high enough in your story, they’re asking if your characters have a lot to lose if they fail to accomplish their mission. If the dragon will let the princess go free just by the prince asking for her, there is no conflict, and the stakes are low.
If there is a fight to the death, the stakes are high. Both the prince and princess will die if the dragon wins the battle against the prince. Two lives will be lost immediately. More, next time the dragon goes for a jaunt. Those are high stakes.
High stakes gives meaning to your work. It glues readers to your pages, and audiences to your screenplays. In Star Trek, The Voyage Home, the stakes are simple: If the good guys fail to restore whales to Earth’s oceans, all the waters of the world will be removed, and everything and everyone in the world will die.
The entire existence of everything doesn’t have to be what’s put on the cosmic table in a story. A riveting story can have stakes that are much smaller and more personal.
In the classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, the spider, Charlotte, writes praise of the pig character in her web, in order to keep him from being turned into hams and bacon. One pig’s life is all that’s at stake in the story. But that’s all that’s needed.
Another thing to note about stakes: most every character, large or small, in your work should have their own.
For instance, in the autobiographical novella Douglas Avenue by the late Sarkis Atamian, the father, Mr. Stepanian, must find work in spite of the Depression or his immigrant family will starve. The stakes for his son, Garo, are to somehow negotiate an entirely new language and culture in the neighborhood and school, or he will suffer the obliteration of self-worth.
A story that satisfies your readers is one where the stakes are high enough.
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