Use Story Stakes to Hook Readers by Kay Keppler
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, editor, and novelist, Kay Keppler, as she shares with us “Use Story Stakes to Hook Readers.” Enjoy!
A great way to hook readers—and keep them turning the pages—is to keep your readers worried about your characters. You can create and sustain this tension by constantly raising the story stakes.
What are Story Stakes?
Stakes are the negative consequences of failure.
If your protagonist doesn’t achieve her goal, then bad things will happen.
If you keep raising the stakes, readers will have to keep reading to learn how she avoids disaster.
How can you use story stakes to keep your readers hooked? Try this:
- Describe the stakes.
- Connect your readers to the stakes.
- Raise the stakes.
Step #1: Describe the Stakes
The stakes will be different for each story and set of characters, but in every case, the ultimate stakes should be high. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for example, Harry must protect the Sorcerer’s Stone, which can confer eternal life and unlimited wealth, before Voldemort, an evil murderer, steals it. If Harry fails, all manner of darkness will be unleashed.
In another kind of story, the stakes could be about the loss of love or place. In Montana Sky by Nora Roberts, three sisters, who are not close, will inherit the family ranch only if they live together for one year. If they don’t, they lose the place they all think of as the heart of the family. And in any romance novel, the stakes are about the failure to find that happy-ever-after.
Step #2: Connect Your Readers to the Stakes
You want readers to connect with the stakes, not just the characters. You want them to identify with the potential for failure. This structure keeps readers emotionally tied to the story even when you have an unlikeable protagonist or an ethically dubious plot.
To do this, have your readers spend meaningful time with the stakes at the beginning of your story, and personalize this experience through the point of view of one or more of the characters.
Let’s go back to Montana Sky and the three sisters that inherited the ranch. In the beginning, two of the sisters, who have not lived there in years, remember the place as it was. Their memories are true, but softened and romanticized by time and distance. The sister who stayed behind has a more realistic, day-by-day reality. Roberts has each character reflect on what the ranch means to her and how they’d be affected by its loss.
By taking this approach and letting each character have a point of view, Roberts lets readers get to know the place from many angles. And it’s a great way to get to know the characters, too.
Step #3: Raise the Stakes
Ratcheting up the tension, no matter what kind of story you write, keeps your readers engaged.
To raise the stakes for your hero, every goal achieved should lead to a failure. Only by forging ahead can your hero save the day.
For example, say that your hero, a spy, wants to catch the mole in the office. If he fails, the classified secrets of the latest weapons specifications will go to the enemy, and the enemy will win the war and enslave the population. That’s your hero’s ultimate goal and the stakes.
However, in the course of the story, your hero will have smaller goals with smaller stakes.
For example, your hero has left an important document at home, which he needs to retrieve (his goal) to convince his boss there’s a mole. If he can’t convince the boss, no effort will be made to shut down the leak (stakes).
The hero retrieves the document (success!) and goes to meet the boss (goal), but on his way back to the office, the antagonist crashes into his car and steals the briefcase containing the document (failure!); the mole continues his data theft (stakes). And so on.
Maximize Your Subplots
Your subplots can support and even elevate the stakes.
Perhaps the hero’s fiancé works with the mole and suspects him and becomes vulnerable because of her position. If the fiancé makes a sacrifice—say she puts herself at risk by searching the mole’s desk—that action raises the stakes.
By the book’s end, the ultimate stakes will have a greater emotional impact for readers if there’s an emotional component (“save the fiancé”) as well as well as a general urgency (“save the world”).
Put Your Characters in Jeopardy!
Raising—and personalizing—the stakes for your characters are sure ways to keep your readers engaged.
Don’t be afraid to torture your protagonist. Your readers will love you for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
She lives in northern California. Contact her here at Writer’s Fun Zone in the comments below, or at firstname.lastname@example.org to ask questions, suggest topics, or if you prefer, complain.
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