Story Stakes: How to Pile on the Trouble

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I am almost exactly half way through my first draft of Airstream, my middle grade science fiction novel. I wouldn’t say that I’m having a problem with the muddle middle but I am having to step carefully. I need to make sure that the stakes are high enough to keep readers engrossed.

This is an issue that every writer faces. Some of them pile on one problem after another. There is life-threatening danger at every turn. But it can be even more effective if you work with the three different types of story stakes.

External Stakes

External stakes are what is going on in the outside world of your story. Your character has a physical need that must be met.

In my story, my characters are trying to get home. That’s a pretty big external problem. But they are also facing a wide variety of space threats including the need for air, food, and fuel.

The fight for survival is compelling and I could keep piling on physical threats. Or I could include internal stakes.

Internal Stakes

Internal stakes are emotional or mental. Internal stakes might include a quest for self-confidence, a feeling of love, or hope.

Being in space and facing the usual threats is going to be mentally taxing. But I’ve added internal stakes by giving my characters even more to worry about. They’ve been gone a long time. How is everyone on Earth? Two crews have had to join forces on one ship. That’s going to add stress and anxiety as they learn to work together and try to trust each other.

Philosophical Stakes

Philosophical stakes have to do with a belief system or philosophy. What does it mean to be good? To be a leader?

In my story, my characters are faced with some of the same philosophical stakes readers today are facing. In a world where not everyone is valued equally, now much effort should go into saving those at the bottom? If you cross social boundaries to form friendships, what happens when someone in authority tries to pit the two groups against each other?

Yes, I could just keep piling on the external stakes. But science fiction has long asked difficult questions. What philosophical stakes can you bring to your work-in-progress?