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Building the stakes

Emma_Clare at 12:00AM, April 2, 2021

Not long ago, I wrote about utilising cliffhangers. This week it’s all about them stakes. When it comes to creating a comic, it is important to give a reason for the reader to care about it. Stakes are a pivotal part of that. Cutscene University explains what stakes are within a narrative quite succinctly. They say,

“In general terms, stakes are things a character stands to lose if they fail to achieve their goal. Stakes can be either external or internal, mirroring a character’s wants and needs, respectively. External stakes are typically people, places, or things, whereas internal stakes are values, beliefs, or ideas.”

A narrative is strongest when the internal and external stakes are at risk for the sake of the ultimate goal. What is the character willing to give up to save the world? What are they willing to do to get the guy? What are they willing to sacrifice to achieve their ultimate revenge? By establishing their values (internal) and setting them in contrast to what they stand to lose (external) you create a sense of tension that hooks the reader in. To them there you need to raise the bar over the course of your story.

The characters have to be pushed to make decisions that contrast who they are and what more they will need to do to succeed in their quest. Don’t forget, having the character fail is part of this. They come to understand their loss and therefore have even more to lose if they choose to give up. It’s even better if we want them to give up, to spare themselves the hurt, but they choose to continue on anyway.

“When properly established, a story’s stakes strengthen not only the plot, but the characters as well. These singular ideas can then come together to support the theme, which is the central question that the work asks of its audience.”

What are your favourite ways to raise the stakes in your story? Let us know in the comment section below! And join us on Sunday evening for our Quackchat at 5:30PM(EST)!

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PaulEberhardt at 8:53AM, April 3, 2021

I was going to say pretty much the same: there's an unwritten limit to how high you can rise the stakes. After about the ten thosandth time of watching someone save the universe you start to wonder (a) how it managed without all those heroes for the past 15 billion years, (b) why don't we just let that damn thing blow up to break the monotony, and (c) why do writers (especially SciFi writers) have absolutely no sense of scale? There's a re-dubbed Star Wars parody that has Anakin Skywalker searching the universe for his teddy bear, and turning to the dark side because he can't find it. Curiously, it works amazingly well. My point is, what you make of the stakes is a strictly subjective matter. If you get readers to empathise with your characters to a sufficient degree, it doesn't matter at all how high the stakes actually are from a sober perspective. My own storylines often revolve around very small things, but I can usually make that work well enough. It's an art. ;)

hushicho at 10:04PM, April 2, 2021

You don't really have to necessarily bring losing into it. If the stakes are comprehensible enough and identifiable enough, the thought of losing should be unimaginably abhorrent to the reader or viewer. It is also extremely common (and extremely poor an idea) to try "raising the stakes" and just land in an endless cycle of escalation. Additionally, I don't think there needs to necessarily be an internal vs external system of values. It's enough if any of them, inside or out, is lost or compromised, and that should be understood through the writing. If it's not, that's where an author should probably examine and see what's wrong.

Banes at 11:50AM, April 2, 2021

Also, i raise my stakes without the use of antibiotics!

Banes at 11:49AM, April 2, 2021

Great stuff - agreed! Never heard of Cutscene University. Some ways to amp up the stakes is to show what could happen if the goals/want/need is not achieved - like, what happens when the type of failure happens. This is a good use of "reflection characters", or people who have lost in similar struggles that the Protagonist is having.

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