Story Stakes and Free Book Giveaway Contest

by

Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

What makes readers care about your story?

STAKES.

What are stakes? Quite simply, they are the consequences if the protagonist fails. What will s/he lose?

The world could end; the lovers may not get together; the serial killer might claim more victims, etc.

I recently read H.R. D’Costa’s craft book Story Stakes. My copy is now full of yellow highlighter markings because she makes her points clearly and concisely. Her style is straightforward, logical, and easy to follow.

Using specific examples, D’Costa lists 11 types of stakes to “increase tension and reader engagement.” Screenwriters are experts at creating high stakes, therefore many of her examples are from films. But the same principles apply to books.

With her permission, here is her list:

Stake #1: General Protection – from the fate of an entire galaxy (Star Wars) to the safety of passengers on a booby-trapped bus (Speed), general protection focuses on the lives of others who will suffer if the hero fails.

Stake #2: Demise – physical death is the consequence to the hero or someone precious to him/her.

Stake #3: Livelihood – failure by the hero means loss of a job, profession, ability to support family, etc.

Stake #4: Freedom – the hero or someone close to him/her will go to prison or otherwise lose their freedom and autonomy.

Stake #5: Reputation – if the hero’s good name is besmirched, his/her legacy is disgraced. That can lead to other stakes coming into play, like the loss of respect/love of family and friends, or loss of livelihood.

Stake #6: Sanity – the hero could lose his/her mind. Gaslight (Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer) and Hitchcock movies like Vertigo and Rebecca explored this stake.

Stake #7: Access – the hero could lose connection with loved ones, lose his/her home, or be shunned by his/her community.

Stake #8: Regret – The hero may have a dream but doesn’t achieve it because s/he didn’t grab an opportunity. Another variation on regret is the hero failed in the past and has been plagued by guilt ever since, such as In the Line of Fire, where a Secret Service agent (Clint Eastwood) didn’t save President Kennedy. The plot offers the agent a second chance to save another president. Failure will doom him to a life of regret but success gives him redemption and peace of mind.

Stake #9: Suffering and Sacrifice – the hero suffers and sacrifices health, wealth, love, or endures other hardships in order to achieve a goal. If s/he fails, all suffering and sacrifice are in vain.

Stake #10: Justice – If the hero fails, the villain gets away with a heinous crime and never faces punishment for evil deeds.

Stake #11: Hero Happiness – The hero pins all hopes and effort on a prize. If s/he fails, the prize is lost.

Stakes are the emotional link between the story and the reader. Through the characters, the reader vicariously faces terrible problems and must make difficult choices with dire consequences.

Stakes make the reader ask questions:

“What would I do in this situation?”

“How would I react if my family was in jeopardy?”

“What would I give up to achieve this goal?”

D’Costa makes clear that a single stake is not enough to forge a strong emotional bond between the hero and the reader. Step by step, she analyzes emotional factors that drive characters’ decisions and how readers relate to those stakes.

She goes on to illustrate how to layer stakes, one on top of another, blending them into a compelling tangle from which the hero—and the reader—cannot escape. The hero must keep pushing forward, despite increasing danger, and the reader must keep turning pages to find out what happens.

She also shows how stakes can change during the course of the plot, starting out with one set of problems that morph into different stakes. Each complication becomes more complex and perilous, leading to ever-worsening consequences.

D’Costa (aka HRD) graciously agreed to share further insight into her book and writing process in the following Q&A:

DB: What specifically prompted you to write Story Stakes?

HRD: First, let me say thanks so much for featuring Story Stakes on The Kill Zone today, Debbie! I really appreciate it.

Your question is an interesting one because I didn’t intend to write a craft guide about stakes—not initially, at least. I was actually working on a craft guide about creating the kind of dazzling climax that would turn a novelist into an “auto-buy” for readers.

In conducting research for that book, stakes came up again and again. They really define the overall quality of your story climax. Anyway, when editing the climax book, it quickly became apparent that the stakes warranted a book of their own.

So I stopped working on the climax book, and began conducting research again—this time focusing exclusively on the stakes, and how to use them to deepen readers’ emotional involvement in a story.

DB: How did you develop your 11-point stakes list?

HRD: Most of my research consisted of watching movies in a variety of genres and asking myself two main questions:

  1. What initially motivated the protagonist to pursue his goal?
  2. What techniques did the filmmakers use to make audiences even more invested in the outcome of the climax?

Looking for patterns led to the creation of a master list of 11 types of story stakes as well as a list of modulating factors (these help you elicit even more emotion from the same set of stakes) and strategies to raise the stakes.

By the way, if TKZ readers would like a printable PDF list with the 11 types of story stakes, they can find one here.

I found it really interesting that some types of story stakes can’t stand on their own (they need to be paired with another set of stakes). Even though these non-standalone stakes don’t drive the plot, they’re valuable because of how they heighten reader emotion.

For instance, throughout the middle of a story, the protagonist experiences several ordeals. If the protagonist fails to achieve his goal, he will have suffered in vain—and these stakes of suffering inject a story with extra emotional intensity.

However, ordeals emerge from conflict. In other words, if your characters are, to quote TKZ’s own James Scott Bell, “Happy People in Happy Land,” your plot won’t just be boring. Because stakes of suffering are virtually nonexistent, your plot will also lack emotional juice. It’s a good example of how one storytelling choice impacts another.

DB: Who are your favorite influences vis a vis writing craft?

HRD: Many years ago, thanks to my dad, I was able to attend Robert McKee’s famous Story seminar. McKee said that we’d learn a lot by comparing a produced version of a film to its original screenplay. I started to do that—and discovered McKee was right. It got me hooked on that style of learning, so I continued along that path. Most of what I’ve learned has come from self-study—analyzing films, screenplays, and novels to understand what works and what doesn’t. That’s why I’d consider them my greatest teachers.

That said, some wonderful craft books gave me a solid foundation to build on. One of my favorites is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. It provides a good overview of story structure. More important, it makes screenwriting feel accessible. After you read it, you think, Yes, I can do this. Although it was written with aspiring screenwriters in mind, many novelists have found it useful, too. (Actually, now there’s an edition just for novelists, but I haven’t read that yet.)

Another gem: Write Away by Elizabeth George. This one really impressed upon me the importance of connecting all your plot events together through cause and effect. Although writers of all genres can benefit from this craft book, it might be especially valuable to TKZ readers since George uses her mystery novels to explain her points. In addition, she shares excerpts from her writing journals. These can be quite comforting to read when you hit a rough patch because you know George went through the same thing.

Relatively recently, I discovered Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel. In one chapter, he walks you through four outlines for Ken Follett’s The Man from St. Petersburg. Experiencing how the story evolved is both fascinating and instructive. One of my favorite tips from Zuckerman’s book relates to stakes, so it’s a good one to end on. *smile* Here it is: when deciding your point-of-view character for a scene, choose “the one who has the greatest emotional involvement, the largest stake in what’s happening.”

~~~~

D’Costa’s 11 variations are not a formula. Writers can mix and match stakes that work best. Learning how to blend stakes increases the emotional impact of your story.

And that leads to satisfied readers.

Story Stakes is a reference tool I’ll be referring to often. Thanks for writing it, H.R. D’Costa!

~~~~

About H. R. D’Costa

A graduate of Brown University, H. R. D’Costa (a.k.a. HRD) is an author and writing coach who specializes in story structure and story stakes. Known for her “deep dive” instruction style, she is the author of 8 writing guides including Sizzling Story Outlines, Story Stakes, and the 4-volume Story Structure Essentials series. For practical, actionable writing tips designed to help you keep readers glued to your pages, visit her website scribemeetsworld.com, which is also home to the Ultimate Story Structure Worksheet (downloaded over 37,000 times by writers from around the world).

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TKZers – WIN A PAPERBACK COPY OF STORY STAKES

To win a paperback copy of Story Stakes, answer this question in the comments: What are some of your favorite examples of stakes in films or novels?

Debbie will randomly select a winner from the comments and announce the lucky recipient on July 25, True Crime Thursday.

Note: This giveaway is only open to residents of North America, South America, and Europe.

Good luck and happy writing!

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About Debbie Burke

Crime novelist, suspense and mystery novels are her passion. Her thriller Instrument of the Devil won the Kindle Scout contest and the 2016 Zebulon contest sponsored by Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Her nonfiction articles appear in national and international publications and she is a regular blogger at The Kill Zone. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

39 thoughts on “Story Stakes and Free Book Giveaway Contest

  1. I love this list.
    Early on, I attended a workshop where the point “Only trouble is interesting” was driven home. Deb Dixon’s GMC approach also helps keep the stakes in mind. That’s also something I notice in a lot of the contests I’ve judged for unpublished manuscripts. Good writing, but the characters have nothing to lose; it’s just a bunch of “stuff” happening.
    Another point Dixon makes is what happens if your character DOES get what he wants? How can you make that suck? (Her approach was that the character had to choose between “it sucks” and “it’s suckier.”)
    We’ve been watching “Lucifer” for our TV time hour lately, and the recent episode where Lucifer had to go back to hell to get the antidote for the woman he’s been falling in love with (and refusing to admit) and then his mother who’s also been avoiding going back to Hell had to risk going back to save him, is an example of stakes and sacrifices. Neither could be sure they’d get out.
    When I approach a scene (organic writer here), it’s usually based on “what can I throw at them now?”

    • Deb Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict is another great source. Thanks for mentioning it, Terry.

      It seems easier for organic writers to wrap their heads around stakes and GMC b/c those concepts don’t require detailed plotting in advance. Something sucky happens, the character must react, something suckier happens, the character must react, etc. That’s why Story Stakes resonated with me, a pantser.

    • “Another point Dixon makes is what happens if your character DOES get what he wants? How can you make that suck?”

      That’s a great tip, Terry. Thanks for sharing it. Asking those questions is a great way to create a lively plot.

  2. Consider some teenagers racing against each other down a narrow, winding country road. The stakes are life and death.

    Why should we get emotionally involved? We just shake our heads at the foolishness and sadness. But the same scene grabs us if there’s an important goal. Maybe they need to get somewhere to prevent a catastrophe. Or, maybe, one of the drivers is desperate for social acceptance, and she thinks this is the only way to achieve it. Then the life-and-death stakes grab us.

    Stakes are important. But so is goal. While a goal without stakes is not drama, stakes without a goal is faux drama.

    The other day I quit reading a novel halfway through–an award-winning novel. The protag, a forensic artist with a plethora of problems, was about to go undercover to ID members of a snake-handling cult–and bringing her fifteen-year-old daughter along. High stakes indeed. But as far as I could tell, she had no goal that entailed her doing this. Sure it would be a better world if the snakebite deaths could be stopped. But it wasn’t her job. The situation didn’t involve goals or problems in her life or danger to people near and dear to her. In other words, she was going into a high-stake situation for no good reason. (Since this is a “Christian” novel, maybe she received a Macedonian call. But we’re not told that.)

    If I’m to let myself vicariously experience the anxiety, the fear, the terror of the protag, it has to be for a good cause. Not thrill, chills and excitement for their own sake.

    • “If I’m to let myself vicariously experience the anxiety, the fear, the terror of the protag, it has to be for a good cause. Not thrill, chills and excitement for their own sake.”

      Good point, Eric. HRD cites the movie example of DIE HARDER–plenty of non-stop action in it but if the hero fails, his wife dies, therefore we care.

    • Eric, you’re right. To work, stakes must be attached to a goal.

      I really like the example of a teen driver getting into a dangerous race because she’s motivated by the desire for social acceptance.

      But I’d interpret it a little differently. The goal is to win the race. The stakes are social acceptance. The cost is the injury (or loss of life) she could incur by participating in the race.

      To keep readers invested, the costs have to align with the stakes (this is actually a topic I discuss in detail in STORY STAKES).

      In this case, you’d have to convince readers that social acceptance is worth dying for. This is not the easiest concept to buy into (unlike say, risking life in order to save your family), so it’d be challenging to pull off. But a great YA writer could make it work!

  3. Gatsby not being able to win Daisy back.
    Scarlett losing Tara.
    Dorothy not getting home.
    Katniss not surviving the Hunger Games.
    Harry not defeating Voldemort and thus not saving the world from evil.

    Those are some of my favorites.

  4. Hey Debbie. For me, the question as posed, “…your favorite examples of stakes…” is hard to answer. I find my mind FIRST drifting toward favorite books and movies, and then recalling the stakes, e.g. Will the Joad family survive in the Grapes of Wrath, will Marty McFly restore 1955 to what it looked like before he intervened, etc.
    I think this is a normal process. Meaningful stakes are part of the fabric of a “good” story. Like character and plot, they can’t be separated out from the whole, or carry the story on their own. That said, I think a book that explores the nature of stakes is a great tool. Thanks for sharing that with us!

    • “Meaningful stakes are part of the fabric of a “good” story. Like character and plot, they can’t be separated out from the whole, or carry the story on their own.”

      Ed, so true. Stakes are not everything but they’re a useful tool to make stories deeper and richer.

    • BACK TO THE FUTURE – great example, Ed!

      I love how the filmmakers raised the stakes in that film. First, the stakes are about freedom – Marty doesn’t want to be stuck in 1955, especially with his girlfriend waiting for him in 1985. Then, the stakes are about staying alive – if Marty doesn’t get his parents back together, he will cease to exist.

      “Stakes can’t carry a story on their own.” That’s a good point, and worth noting.

      But to that, I would add: when character and plot work well (but you still feel rather “blah” toward a story)…it’s because the writer failed to properly harness the power of stakes.

  5. In the book I just finished, Strangers, by Michaelbrent Collings, if the protagonist didn’t get his trapped family out of the house, they’ll all suffer torturous deaths at the hands of a serial killer. And if the hero fails, the killer will not face justice and will go on to kill again.

  6. I think the Tom Hanks movie Castaway had several effective overlapping stakes, primarily Demise, Sanity, and Access. The movie was a long one but kept me riveted because of the high stakes.

    • Dean, one point in HRD’s book is that stakes will overlap and change during the course of the story. CASTAWAY is a great example–a guy alone on an island with his ball. What a challenge for a story.

    • Haven’t seen CASTAWAY yet. But from what you’ve described, Dean, it looks like it has a potent stake combination.

      Your experience illustrates how stakes, when used well, keep us glued to the pages (or, in this case, a movie screen).

  7. Hmmm, this post brought to mind my favorite movie, Debbie. The 1985 film Ladyhawke checks off several of the story stakes.

    Navarre and Isabeau must defeat the Bishop of Aquila’s curse on them (Freedom). At daybreak, Isabeau becomes a hawk, with nightfall Navarre runs as a wolf. If they can’t break the curse during the “day without a night and a night without a day,” they never will. The two lovers will be forever doomed to catch only a glimpse of each other in that moment the spell changes them with each dawn and dusk. They are eternally together yet apart (Access, Suffering).

    Navarre is determined to kill the bishop but sets the ringing of the church bell as a signal for Isabeau in case he fails. The bishop’s men ring the bell, and Isabeau knows she has lost Navarre (Demise, Sacrifice).

    Isabeau, in human form during the eclipse, runs to the church, intent on killing herself, but she finds Navarre alive. Together in the same place, both in human form, the curse breaks. Navarre kills the bishop just as the man attempts to murder Isabeau (Justice, Hero Happiness).

  8. Thanks for this great article, Debbie. I downloaded the Story Stake Cheat Sheet even before I finished reading the post. I also loved the interview.

    My entry is a movie I just watched a couple of days ago while I was on the treadmill: “The Legend of Bagger Vance”. I knew absolutely nothing about this film, but just chose it because I hadn’t seen it before. It is a movie all about personal risk.

    It’s the story of a talented golfer whose psyche was seriously damaged during his service in WWI which resulted in his withdrawal into alcohol and his belief that he had lost his golfing ability. When he’s talked into participating in an important golf tournament, he is clearly at risk for failure and humiliation. He might not just lose. He could look ridiculous and pitiful.
    I thought the movie-makers did a good job of building hope in the viewer, feeling the initial fear of the main character, watching things improve, then having a disaster happen. Although I assumed I knew how the story would end, it kept my interest during the up-and-down ride.

    • Thanks, Kay, glad you found HRD’s 11 points helpful.

      Uh-oh, my to-be-watched pile is growing, LOL!

      Really exceptional films (and books) can be watched (read) more than once. Even when you already know the ending, if the journey is compelling and the stakes are high, it’s still a great ride.

    • Thanks so much for the kind words, Kay. So glad you downloaded the cheat sheet — hope you find it useful!

      I like your example from BAGGER VANCE. The specter of humiliation is a great way to amp up the stakes (especially when the stakes aren’t life and death). From what you’ve described, sounds like the film has solid structure, too. I’ll have to check it out.

      PS: I took a peek at your blog. Loved hearing about your experience learning to fly — as well as your interview with James Scott Bell.

      I bet others would love to read it as well, so I’ll post the link below:

      https://kaydibianca.com/2019/04/22/the-craft-of-writing-part-1/

      • Thanks to you, HRD, for the kind words. It was a real privilege to have interviewed James Scott Bell and have him interact with folks who visited my blog.

        The cheat sheet is great and very timely. Thanks!

  9. Stakes entry:
    The Fugitive (movie) (just viewed it the other day)
    demise: death sentence; also a target once Chicago PD think he’s a cop killer
    freedom: will go back to jail
    livelihood: loses his calling as physician
    reputation: the trial destroyed it; can he restore it?
    suffering: injuries from the crash; icy water; jump from the dam; fight with nemesis
    justice: he’s been framed; his wife’s been murdered: can he get justice?

    • Great example, Eric. There’s a reason THE FUGITIVE is a classic.

      Actually, it perfectly embodies Debbie’s observation:

      “Really exceptional films (and books) can be watched (read) more than once. Even when you already know the ending, if the journey is compelling and the stakes are high, it’s still a great ride.”

  10. What are some of your favorite examples of stakes in films or novels?

    The film Rudy definitely uses Hero Happiness stakes. Rudy longs to play football for Norte Dame but doesn’t excel academically and can’t even get into the university. But it’s his dream, and he’s persistant. In a less prestigious school he manages to improve his grades, but applications to get into Norte Dame keep getting denied. Finally, when his last window to transfer to Norte Dame has just about closed, he gets accepted. But now he’s got to make the football team. And then be more than just a player who helps with practice. And he has little time to do it since he’s already a senior. He manages to make the team—not because of talent but due to a good showing of passion and persistence. Battling coach politics, Rudy finally gets to go out with the team for the last game of the season. But he’s destined to sit on the sidelines until—well, that’s what the climax is all about. 🙂

    • RUDY is an interesting example. If he fails in his goal to play for Notre Dame, no one dies and the world doesn’t end. However, the force of one character’s determination to succeed against all odds made movie goers cheer for that hero. Thanks, David.

    • David, love the details you shared about RUDY.

      It’s a great example of how to make stakes of hero happiness particularly powerful: show an underdog hero persisting, despite all the odds stacked against him.

      The deadlines (the limited window to transfer to Notre Dame; the fact that Rudy’s a senior; it’s the last game of the season) help too.

  11. I am late to the comments, and understand I missed the free book giveaway (and that’s okay), but I wanted to say thank you for sharing HRD’s insight to writing and her suggestions for other craft books. Each gem we discover (or is shared) brings our work up another notch.

    Again, thank you, and all the contributors to the Kill Zone, for helping us to be better authors.

    • You’re very welcome, Cecelia.

      I began following TKZ in about 2012 and learned so much here that I joke I got an MFA from TKZ…w/o incurring any student debt!

      The generous spirit of TKZ’s great authors makes me proud and humble to be a part of the gang.

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