What Are Story Stakes?
As a writer, you hear about stakes and raising the stakes as the story progresses, but what are stakes? Stakes are the potential consequences of actions.
If you’ve been thinking that stakes are all about winning or losing a fight, let’s reframe your thinking, so the stakes in your mystery keep your reader wondering from the start of your story.
A mystery may feel like a challenge for creating stakes because your detective does not confront the perpetrator until the final reveal. But when you expand your thinking about stakes to think about potential consequences for any action you have a big, wide field of choices.
The variety of ways to create potential consequences will open up your choices about creating stakes.
How to Build Stakes In a Mystery
Stakes are events that could happen as a consequence of a character’s action. They are based on cause and effect. In other words, if my character does this, then (stakes) could happen. So, brainstorming stakes for your characters requires thinking about what could happen. That’s the brainstorming part.
You can think up more than one consequence for your character’s action. Right away, you expand your story ideas. Compelling stakes create tension and suspense. The reader thinks of what could happen and then keeps reading to discover what does happen to your character.
Start building stakes into your story planning. Begin with stakes for the major plot points:
- Inciting incident
- First pinch point
- Second pinch point
Brainstorming Story Stakes
Your brainstorming centers around possibilities. Yes, possibilities can seem endless, so let’s look at some ways to approach creating stakes.
Positive and Negative Outcomes
We think of negative outcomes first because that is what the risk is.
If the sleuth doesn’t find the killer, justice will not be served.
But a positive outcome can be crucial to moving your story forward.
If the sleuth finds the killer, his opponent will have nothing to oppose.
Cause and Effect
Build on the previous consequences.
If the detective found a clue, he’ll have to interview a new suspect. If the suspect refuses to give him information, he loses the trail to the killer. If he loses the trail to the killer, he has to backtrack. If he has to backtrack, then he needs to find new suspects.
If you keep building on cause and effect, you’ll fill in the story between the major plot points. You won’t be wondering how to get from the pinch point to the midpoint.
Don’t forget to think about how your detective’s actions impact the world outside the main story. For example, if the detective fails to find the serial killer, the entire police force will be seen as a failure. Or, if she fails, the community is still at risk for more killings.
Broad stakes work exceptionally well for inner conflict, revealing your protagonist’s moral code.
The opposite of broad stakes, personal consequences affect your sleuth’s inner journey. If your sleuth is killed in this perilous situation, who will father their child? If your sleuth does not find the killer, what is the impact on their career?
Personal stakes work to engage the reader with your character. The more your reader cares about your character, the more they are involved in the outcome.
Your character thinks something will happen as a result of their action. Let’s face it, part of the mystery puzzle results from your detective not knowing all the facts. As they collect evidence and interview suspects, they may develop a misunderstanding that create’s a perceived threat. These misunderstandings contribute to the fail and rethinking that happens at the midpoint.
Your detective believes a suspect wants revenge on her for meddling in the murder and is setting a trap. This perception doesn’t need to be true. Your character just needs to think it is true.
Layering the Stakes
Now that you have some ideas for various ways to create stakes—potential consequences—you can organize them in terms of threat to your character. Start with smaller stakes at the beginning of your story. Then build to larger stakes as you head toward the climax.
Brainstorming stakes for different parts of your story helps you build tension, but that backlog of stakes gives you fuel for every scene in your mystery.
Need to get the foundations of writing a mystery under your writing belt? Write A Killer Mystery is the course designed to lead you through every step.