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Around this time last year, I went to a marvelous workshop for kidlit writers, the Big Sur Writing Workshop. It was pretty awesome and pretty daunting, and I learned a lot about myself and critiquing. One of those things I learned about, is the subject of today: writing stakes.

This is not the stake you’re looking for, unless you have a vampire problem…

During the workshop, the most common piece of a critique was, “what are the stakes?” Not stakes, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer likes to stake some vampires, but stakes as in what the character stands to gain or losing from a certain situation. All too often, the stakes of a scene would not be clear, or worse, there would not be any. I too was guilty of not having clear stakes. I’m still working on them in my current revision.

Unclear or missing stakes cause loads of issues in a manuscript. Having clear and increasingly rising stakes is one of the main things that keeps a reader engaged and turning pages. Without them, there’s this feeling of, “so what?” or “why should I care?” Stakes are what writers use to make their readers care.

Here’s an example:

No Stakes- Susan has to save the world. After a freak lab accident, the once friendly pets of the world start turning into calculating and cold blooded killers. Cats and dogs threaten to overrun the world, killing out the human race in the process. Only Susan holds the key to curing the animals of their unnatural state and returning order before it’s too late.

So the summary above may seem okay at first glance. It’s not. It’s a premise, but it lacks any conflict. I have no reason to care about Susan or her saving the world because nothing in her tells me why Susan wants to save the world or what will happen if she doesn’t. There are no stakes.

Stakes-Susan never wanted to save the world, let alone leave the house. She would rather stay with her cat, safe from the impending apocalypse and other scary things, like people. But when Mr. Whiskers falls ill with the mutation turning animals into super-killers throughout the world, suddenly staying locked in her home isn’t so safe anymore. To save her beloved cat and herself, Susan must venture out of her house for the first time in years.  What she finds is a world full of dangers, but also possibilities, including the chance to cure dear Mr. Whiskers, and maybe save the world.

Okay, so the stakes are a little ridiculous, but they exist in the second summary. Susan is battling crippling fear to save her pet, and herself. She has a reason to save the world, because it’s the one way to get her world to go back to normal.

I am still learning about stakes. Here’s a few links about ’em, where people wiser than me explain it all. This one and another blog give step-by-step instructions to help make sure you have those stakes present, clear, and high. And this one I like because it gives examples from some well-known books.

Beginner or veteran writer, we all need to keep our stakes in mind. Make sure they’re sharp and to the point, just like one of Buffy’s stakes, and the rest is, well, all slaying writing.