As I work on developing my middle grade science fiction idea, I’ve been watching some of the Pixar videos at Khan Academy. Today, I watched one on story stakes. One of the things that we have to do when we create the stakes for our stories is make them big enough to matter.
Your character wants a piece of gum. Who cares?
Your character needs a piece of gum before she takes her spelling test. The wintergreen reminds her of her grandmother. That’s better.
Your character needs a piece of gum before her test because it reminds her of her grandmother. That reminder makes her feel secure and confident. This isn’t about gum. It isn’t about her grandmother. It is about self-confidence. Even better still.
This isn’t just a matter of creating a back story around the stakes. It is a matter of creating different kinds of stakes.
External stakes are what is going on in the outside world of your story. Your character has a physical need – gum. It might be something bigger. Perhaps your character needs food or water or a winter coat. Those are external needs.
Internal stakes are emotional or mental. Gum is a comfort food for your character or a security blanket. Why? Because it reminds her of someone who believed in her. Internal stakes might include a quest for self-confidence, a feeling of love, or hope.
Philosophical stakes have to do with a belief system or philosophy. What does it mean to be good? To be a leader? Recognizaing that confidence is more than believing in yourself but also helping others believe in themselves. The idea that that is true strength.
Develop your stakes at multiple levels and they will matter more even if, at first, the physical stake feels fairly ho hum.