One of the most important questions to consider when developing a story is “what is going to be at stake for my main character?”
By this, we mean, “What is the cost of quitting?”
A worthwhile story is one in which the story’s goals and conflict matter. The more you raise the stakes, the more the main character will be forced to act and the more these actions will matter. Raising the stakes will also help prevent a problem with motivation as we jack up the conflict. As we pour on more and more challenge and conflict, readers may be tempted to ask, “Why is he subjecting himself to that? Why doesn’t he just quit.” And the answer lies in what’s at stake. The cost of quitting (or the perceived cost of quitting) must be higher than the pain of continuing.
Let’s think about ghost stories. Often a character enters a haunted house because he’s curious or because he’s been dared. These days, a popular motivator to get a character into a haunted house is to make a video. And this works just fine to get the character into the house, because at that initial moment of entering the house, we know that most people wouldn’t really expect anything to happen. Maybe there will be some creaking noises. Maybe a door will swing shut on its own. But nothing really alarming is likely to happen so a mild motivation like curiosity is really sufficient. We don’t need a lot at stake to get a character into a situation that is probably not going to be dangerous (or so the character thinks).
But what keeps a character in a situation like that once the scary stuff begins? Why would anyone stay in a haunted house when things turn truly frightening or even dangerous? Curiosity or being dared or making a video are not a good enough motivation to keep a kid in a house when a blood-stained ghost has appeared. So you need to up the stakes if you’re planning to up the conflict (and upping the conflict is good. It makes a story more interesting. You just have to keep the conflict and the stakes in balance). So how could you up the stakes in a haunted house story?
Perhaps the main character’s tag-along little brother is with him when he decided to check out the haunted house or fulfill the dare or make the video. And maybe the pesky little brother disappears almost immediately. Now we have very high stakes. A main character cannot simply abandon his younger sibling. Even if he’s a pretty selfish kid, he would have to know his parents would never be okay with him leaving the little kid behind. So the main character has to stick it out, even when things get truly terrifying because you’ve upped the stakes. The cost of bailing on the story is too high.
Physical or Emotional
Stakes can be something physical: if the main character doesn’t fulfill his quest and find the medicinal plant, his best friend/family member will die! Sometimes the stakes can be something deeply emotional. The main character may be unable to quit because it will “prove” that the bullies are right: he is a coward. Or maybe the main character is unable to quit because he wants to be brave like his father, the firefighter who died when he went into a fire to save someone. Emotional stakes can be every bit as compelling as physical as long as we believe the character is truly feeling them. A strong emotional stake is deeply personal for the character but there must also be some universality in it so that all readers will believe in that motivation.
Be Careful of the Convenient
The one thing you have to beware of as you ratchet up the stakes is the believability factor. Sometimes the situation is simply too convenient, too cliché, or too contrived. For example, the main character who must continue through the scary events because he just happens to see a puppy that he must rescue (in a situation where a puppy is pretty unlikely). Spotting a puppy loose in an animal rescue building that is in danger of collapse when a tree falls is believable. A puppy who just happens to be loose in the middle of the forest where a killer is stalking teenagers seems a little more contrived.
Anything you plan to include in your writing needs to work organically with what has come before. Often this means extensive revision to smooth the new additions into what you’ve already done. If you decide halfway through the book to ratchet up the stakes by endangering a puppy, then you need to make the puppy a logical addition, a part (at least potentially) of the story from far, far before that point, and it’s continued presence needs to make sense. Overly convenient or contrived events throw readers out of the story and undo all the good you did by ramping up conflict and the stakes connected to it.
As you look at building your story with an eye toward keeping the reader engaged throughout and making your story feel real and believable, keep the stakes for the main character in mind. They’re a part of motivation, a part of tension, and a part of believability. With all that, it’s worth paying attention to the stakes in the writing and revision process. Keep your stakes high and believable and you’ll strengthen your story every time.