Writing High Stakes

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On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in UK“, JJ Barnes wrote how to write high stakes into your story and the impact it has.

Written by JJ Barnes


A story with high stakes will draw your audience in and make your story feel more important.

Your story will follow your Protagonist, your main character, on their journey to try and get something they want or need in their lives. The stakes of your story are how much your character will suffer if they fail. The higher the stakes, the tenser and more dramatic your story will be.

High Stakes Motivate Your Character

Your character is motivated to get something at the inciting incident. Through the course of the story you show them trying to get it. The climax of your story is where they either get it, or have to come to terms with the fact they can’t have it.

Whatever it is they want, you have to show your audience why it matters. Something in that characters life is unsatisfactory, and they want to change it. This explains why they are motivated to change it, but there has to be a risk involved.

The risk of going after what you want is that you could fail. That is a weight that you carry around your neck the entire time you’re trying.

How To Write High Stakes, The Table Read Writing Advice
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Every time a conflict arises that might derail you from getting what you want, that weight gets a little heavier. If you really want something, the fear of failing is a hard one to carry. If your character isn’t struggling with that weight, then they are not motivated enough.

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What Does The Antagonist Want?

To make the risk of failing a real and difficult to carry pressure on your character, you need to look at what your Antagonist wants.

Your Protagonist is motivated to get something, which means your Antagonist is motivated to get the opposite. A lot of the stakes that come with your Protagonist failing will be caught up with the risks that come with the Antagonist winning.

In Bird Box, the Protagonist Malorie wants to get herself and the children to safety. She is motivated to get them down the river and to the mysterious safe place. The Antagonists, the mysterious monsters you can’t look at, are motivated to stop her and look into her eyes. The stakes are rooted in the risk of what happens if the Antagonists get what they want. If she fails, and the Antagonists win, she and the children will die.

Write High Stakes With A One Time Only Event

If you’re not telling a story with life or death stakes, you need to find a way to make the risk of failure heightened in some other way. Making what your character wants a one time only event is a perfect way to add pressure.

If your character fails this time and they could just try again tomorrow, the stakes are really low. That’s not very interesting because it’s not that important. However, if they fail today and they never get to try again, that is high stakes drama.

In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Glory is motivated to get a key that will open the gates between Earth and Hell. There is only one time when she will be able to do the spell and use the key. The closer it gets to that time, the more motivated she becomes. In turn, her Antagonists, Buffy and the scoobies, become increasingly motivated to stop her. If Glory fails once, she’s failed completely. There is no second go.

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What Is The Emotional Fall Out?

If your character fails and they’re not too upset, there are no stakes. The risk of failure should carry some kind of emotional fall out. The more devastated they will be, the higher the stakes are.

The fear of emotional pain can be intense and adds an extra layer of motivation. Heartbreak is a classic high stakes emotional fall out for characters. If they are desperately in love with another character, and the risk is they will lose the love of their life, the motivation and stakes are clear.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid is in love with Eric and her story goal is to win his love in return. The stakes are already high, if she fails then Ursula wins ownership of her soul. However, that isn’t the driving force behind Ariel’s story. Ariel isn’t scared of losing her soul, she’s scared of losing Eric. When Ursula appears as Vanessa and magically seduces Eric, that is what raises the stakes for Ariel. Watching the love of her life marry someone else is the emotional devastation she has been most afraid of. If her Antagonist wins, Ariel will be broken hearted.

High Stakes Create A Fear Of Failure

The fear of failure should matter to your Protagonist, because failure is where the stakes are. If your Protagonist isn’t scared of facing the consequences of not getting what they want then there are no stakes and your story will be boring.

The more scared of failure they are, the higher the stakes are, the more drama and excitement there is in your story.

More From JJ Barnes:

I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.

You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk

Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books

Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose

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