Creating Tension with Story Stakes

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Make things difficult for your character. That’s one of those pieces of advice that we hear again and again. The reality is that if the stakes aren’t high enough, your reader just won’t care.

Think about it. So your character wants to do well on a test. Pfft. Tests aren’t all that unusual. You have to pile it on to make this one matter. What can you do? Your characters only opportunity to go to college is a scholarship and it hinges on this test. With her parent’s divorce, your character’s grades are suffering. Another bad grade means she will have to leave the STEAM Academy. This isn’t a grade school math class. If your character fails this test, he gets booted out of the guild which means he will be homeless in addition to being an orphan.

Making the stakes big is one way to pull in your readers. It also helps if the story stakes change. Your character who is on the verge of becoming a full member of the guild discovers that they aren’t alchemists devoted to keeping the king alive. They are actually under the sway of the brother he deposed. If your character becomes a guild member, it will be his duty to help kill the entire royal family. Now he’s conflicted. Pass the test or fail?

If your character passes this test, she gets to go to college. If she fails, she doesn’t get to go. Then she finds out that her entire friend group is in competition for the same scholarship. The wealthy family who provides the money could easily send all four kids to university but instead have pitted them against each other. Is it really an escape for one? Or is it a means of controlling all their actions?

To continue studying to become an engineer, your character has to study at the STEAM Academy. Then she discovers that the teacher who is her mentor is being forced out. She overhears an administrator telling this brilliant woman that if she doesn’t leave, her students will all be dismissed. What’s the point of passing if she may not get to stay? And what can she do to stop this?

There are numerous ways to change the stakes part way through the story. You can raise them, making the outcome more important than ever. Your character can realize that what they thought was an honor is actually a hollow victory. Or your character may discover that something else is vastly more important.

If you want to read more about story stakes, check out “3 Types of Story Stakes.”