Woman watching movie and eating popcorn at night

Up the ante! How to raise the stakes in a story

You know the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, where Princess Leia says “It could’ve been worse.” And Han Solo replies, “It’s worse.” Our heroes go from being under fire in a prison ward to falling into a cesspool of garbage. But wait, there’s something alive down there. And the walls are closing in fast. Meanwhile, the only droids who can get them out of there are just about to get caught by the Empire. Everything is going wrong.

While we know our heroes aren’t going to become mince-meat, the audience is thrilled by this progression from bad to worse. This is what is known as raising the stakes.

Raising the stakes is a term which comes from gambling – it’s increasing the bet against the odds. It’s exactly the same for your characters. The more the protagonist risks to get what they want, the more satisfying it is for readers when they win.

But what is a stake?

But what’s a stake you ask? A stake is something the character values. Which is why high-stakes stories are so thrilling. There is the constant threat of loss of something that matters to the main character. The protagonist has placed their bet on the table, and they might lose it.

These could be the loss of an individual value, such as:

  • Their career or business (Legends and Lattes, Wall Street)
  • A child (Taken, Heavy Rain)
  • An animal companion (John Wick, The Knife of Never Letting Go)
  • A loved one (Romeo and Juliet, the Odyssey)
  • Human life (Crime thrillers, such as The Silence of the Lambs, disaster stories)
  • Themselves (It’s a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane)

Or the threat of loss of a conceptual value:

  • Freedom (Star Wars, The Handmaid’s Tale)
  • Truth (Investigative thrillers such as L.A. Confidential, All the President’s Men, A Few Good Men)
  • Humanity (Schindler’s List, A Tale of Two Cities)
  • Justice (Courtroom dramas such as 12 Angry Men, The Verdict)
  • Peace (War and Peace)
  • Goodness (Epic fantasy, such as The Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age)
  • Power (Succession, Game of Thrones)
  • Life as we know it (Good Omens, The Last of Us, The Sum of All Fears)

Individual values vs conceptual values

Conflict always increases the stakes. The highest stakes are created when individual values come into conflict with conceptual values.

For example, a journalist might pursue the truth at any cost (conceptual value), risking their marriage and family along the way (individual value). Their family receives threats of intimidation to prevent the journalist from looking further. Their marriage breaks down under the strain. But if they uncover the truth, they re-earn the respect of their family, because they value the truth as well.

Establish what your character values, then threaten it

To increase the stakes in your story, you must first establish what your character values. This has to happen early in the narrative, otherwise your readers won’t understand why the character will risk it all.

Create a scene that shows the protagonist’s values on a small scale. Perhaps a parent is playing with their child and helps them when they get hurt. Someone who values truth might scold someone who has lied to them. A lawyer who values justice could right a small wrong, like a waitress not being tipped.

Once you’ve established what the character values most, you must increase the threat to this value. Ask yourself:

  • How can they lose the thing they value most?
  • How far will they go to get it?
  • Who or what is threatening it? Does this change over time?

You can’t be nice to your characters. Raising the stakes means putting your beloved characters in harm’s way. It might mean letting go of your favourite characters to show how high the stakes are in the story.

And I’ll talk you through how easy this is to do.

Always escalate the risk of loss

Stakes go up, not down.

To escalate the stakes you need to increase the threat of loss to the thing the protagonist values most. As in the Star Wars example, the heroes need to escape the Death Star in order to save the lives of many. Their key value is freedom from tyranny, and they’re willing to risk their lives in order to get it. But there are an increasing number of obstacles in their way.

These obstacles need to increase in size as time progresses. It’s no use risking your life in chapter one, if chapter forty is risking a dollar.

Detective with tweezers finds evidence, crime scene

Here’s another example I’ve created to show you how easy it is to raise the stakes.

The setup: Ex-thief Marion loves her son David. He’s what caused her to turn her life around. But when her son drinks a glass of milk one evening…

  • It’s out of date because she can’t afford groceries
  • It makes him sick
  • He’s rushed to hospital for emergency surgery
  • Marion doesn’t have the money to pay for the hospital bill
  • She turns to some shady business acquaintances to pay the bill
  • They hold the child to ransom until she does one last job for them…

See how the stakes suddenly ratcheted up from a simple glass of milk? We’ve established that she loves her son most in the world, and would do anything to get him back – even risk her own life and identity.

Any easy way to think of raising the stakes is to think of the classic proverb:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

That’s exactly how you raise the stakes.

Workshop it!
Write down what your character values most – it could be a person, an object, or a concept.

Then, make one small thing go wrong in their life. It could be something like:
– They break a nail
– They lost their keys
– Their phone battery is nearly dead

Jot down some points to see how far you can escalate the stakes for your character from this one small event.

Keeping stakes in proportion to the story

The world doesn’t need to be ending for the stakes to be big. Stakes should escalate in proportion to the story.

Even cosy stories, like the recent fantasy book Legends and Lattes, have stakes. The story is about an orc called Viv opening a coffee shop. And while it’s a feel-good novel, there’s a chance that Viv might lose her coffee shop. We don’t want Viv to lose her coffee shop because we know how important it is to her. Losing it means a return to the life of a mercenary, something she’s tried very hard to move on from. It’s not just a coffee shop, it’s a symbol of her new identity. These stakes are large in proportion to the story (but not in proportion to a Tom Clancy thriller).

Going all in for the win

Once you’ve established what the character has to lose, you also need to know what they might win by risking it all. You also need to know what they’re willing to give up in order to win.

In high-stakes stories, the protagonist always pays a price for victory. Without sacrificing something they value for something even more valuable, the stakes have no meaning. Think of it as a balance sheet. For example:

  • The heroes stop the shark, but many people are injured or killed (Jaws)
  • The hobbits save the world, but Frodo is irrevocably changed (Lord of the Rings)
  • John McClaine stops the bad guys time and time again, while sacrificing his marriage and family (Die Hard)

Imagine these stories if there wasn’t a stakes sacrifice along the way? They stop the shark. Everyone’s fine. The end. What a boring movie Jaws would be!

Great White Shark, Gansbaai, South Africa

In darker, more ironic works, the protagonist wins, but at a much higher cost. Inheritance dramas such as Succession and Game of Thrones examine the impact of what happens when someone risks too much for power. The stakes to control a powerful empire are already high, but they get higher when people will compromise their own morality in order to get there.

In James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Bud White will go to any lengths in order to uncover the truth of the Nite Owl murders. But in the process, he becomes the very thing he despises. In these cases, the stakes are so high that the characters have sacrificed themselves and lost. These kinds of Pyrrhic victories are the hardest to pull off, but can be the most satisfying to a reader or viewer.

Sometimes the worst thing can be the best thing

And sometimes, just sometimes, the protagonist can lose everything and still win.

The worst happens – they lose what they value most. But in pursuing their ambitions, their identity changes. Turns out, the thing they valued most wasn’t the thing that they needed.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a perfect example. The stakes are high, because the audience knows that George Bailey already has a wonderful life! But in realising his dream of never being born, Bailey realises that what he valued most was right in front of him – and he’ll do anything to get it back.

In conclusion

There are so many ways to raise the stakes in your story. Identifying the protagonist’s values, bringing these values into conflict with the story and its characters, and making sure that there is a price to pay for victory, are just some ways you can raise the stakes.

As a writer, always ask yourself the question: what have your characters got to lose? And if the answer’s everything, then the stakes are high enough.