One of the reasons Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy became such a runaway international bestseller was his uncanny ability to raise the stakes throughout the three-book series. In an interview published in the November/December 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine, bestselling author Ken Follett put it this way: “There’s a rule of thumb that says every four to six pages the story should turn. If you leave it longer than that, people start to get bored. If it’s shorter than that, it’s too frenetic.” Larsson did a masterful job of that. Pick up any of the three books and every four or five pages, something happens that quickens the reader’s heartbeat.
Stakes don’t have to be large. The fate of the world doesn’t have to hinge on every plot twist. Stakes do have to create tension. They have to matter to the reader. Agent Donald Maass, in another Writer’s Digest article, talked about three types of stakes: personal, ultimate and public. The type of stakes an author chooses to employ will depend on the genre. In a mystery, the stakes are obvious. Someone has committed a crime and it’s up to the main character to solve it. In a spy thriller, the fate of the world might rest with a character who must stop the bad guys from destroying the planet. In a family saga, the stakes are more personal, often involving an inner conflict or a battle of wills between two characters.
Here are some common mistakes a writer might make in developing stakes:
- A relationship between two characters develops too fast, sucking all the tension and uncertainty out of the story. This could work in a romance when the main character wins the heart of her man, and then loses him. She then embarks on a quest to get him back, but a quick resolution will wreck the suspense.
- The initial stakes are too high, leaving the writer with nowhere to go. If the main character is involved in a fierce firefight on page one and one thousand people die in the first chapter, how does the writer top that? A rising body count won’t do it.
- Surprise twists that the writer fails to tie to the central conflict or to the story as a whole. Surprises are an essential element in building suspense, but the consequences that arise out of the surprise twist must be consistent with the story.
- Giving away too much information too soon. The best writers hold something back. They don’t drop a giant info dump that tells the reader everything she needs to know about the protagonist on page 2 of the story. They parse information, often withholding important details until just the right moment.
- Relentless action. The reader needs to take a breath. Watch a suspenseful movie. There’s always a pause, a lull in the action, because the viewer cannot process nonstop action.
One of the best techniques for raising the stakes is to put the main character through a series of ever-more-difficult challenges. The character must summon an inner strength she never knew she had to overcome these stakes. When the stakes are significant and the main character struggles heroically or must make a difficult choice, the reader feels satisfaction.
Think of stakes as the engine that drives your story. When you feel your story lagging, raise the stakes.
What are the best examples of novels where the author skillfully raises the stakes?