Are Your Stakes Effective? Here’s How To Find Out

Developing a successful story.

Effective stakes require four basic steps:

  1. Your setup includes a lie.
  2. Your main character is trapped by the lie (which can be a character, a culture, or a mindset).
  3. Your main character figures out the truth.
  4. The main character destroys the lie, forcing reality to become truthful and cohesive. (This step generally involves the bulk of the action, and can stretch over many installments.)

In book one of The Eastern Slave Series, Ajalia takes a room in a poor tenement. The old woman who rents out the building turns out to be a significant character later on. When Ajalia fights her off, the stakes are pretty high.

Here’s how I did it:

  • Establish a lie as reality. This is what murder mysteries do when you can’t figure out who did it; every character falls under suspicion, and you know that at least one of them is lying. As Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple perspicacitatiously observe, almost everyone lies; the question is, which lie conceals malignant evil?

In my book, the lie I established was the old woman’s identity as a cunning but harmless landlady with a hoarding problem.

  • Allow your main character to fall into a trap set by the concealed entity. The hidden character from step one wants something; they are dangerous, and will chew up anyone in their way. Invading aliens and bad wizards are great for these traps.
  • Reveal the true nature of the character or situation. This is the moment when your character figures out what has really been going on.

With my story, Ajalia comes within a hair’s-breadth of being destroyed by a potent magical being. She never suspected the old lady of holding any power, until she was face to face with an imminent end.

  • Resolve the conflict. This action usually stretches over the remainder of the book.

Ajalia doesn’t fall victim to the malignant landlady, but this encounter is like a thread that Ajalia pulls at, which eventually unravels a subterranean culture of magical corruption that threatens to swallow her whole.

She begins to come to terms with the fact that she will have to gain greater magical powers, if she is to conquer malicious magical beings.

Then the really exciting stuff starts up.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Here are some of my awesome books.

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