If I had to name a single recurring theme in my critique group’s feedback on my early drafts, it’d be stakes. The stakes in many young drafts — and not just mine — range from too low to nonexistent. When readers finish the first chapter, they aren’t sure why they should care about the rest of the story.
To keep readers hooked, you need to make the stakes clear from the very beginning: what does your protagonist want, what might get in their way, and what are the consequences if they don’t get it? If readers are struggling to get invested in your story, you probably need to raise the stakes.
Different stories require different stakes
Before you think about raising the stakes, figure out what kind of stakes will resonate with your audience. There are two basic types: internal, or emotional, and external, or plot-based.
Genre fiction often includes a heavy dose of external stakes. Civilizations hang in the balance. Villains must be brought to heel. Genre readers often look for plots that are interesting for their own sake, regardless of how plot events impact the protagonist’s internal state. Harry Potter and The Martian employ external stakes. The story outcome affects not just the story’s hero, but an entire group of people.
In contrast, readers in categories like women’s or literary fiction require personal-level stakes. Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World and John Steinbeck’s East of Eden focus primarily on their characters’ personal journeys.
Ideally, a book should have a good mix of both internal and external stakes. However, your genre will affect the proportion.
The first chapter can make or break your stakes
While the stakes regulate tension throughout your entire story, nothing matters more than your first chapter. This is where readers establish a personal connection with your protagonist and get their first introduction to your story world. To make stakes clear from the beginning, answer these questions in your opening chapter:
- Who is your protagonist? What kind of person are they?
- What does your protagonist want and why does it matter?
- External stakes need to tie this to plot/story world issues
- Internal stakes require a strong emotional connection to your protagonist right away
- What stands to get in the way of what your protagonist wants?
- What will happen if they fail?
These elements can be subtle. You needn’t lay everything out right away. However, readers need a hook. Give them a hint of what’s to come: a reason to keep going. Show them what hangs in the balance between the end of one chapter and the next.
Three ways to raise the stakes
If you keep getting feedback about readers’ lack of connection or investment in your story, you need to raise the stakes. Try these strategies to ratchet up the tension and get readers turning pages:
Weave personal/emotional stakes into plot-focused stakes
Even if your story is primarily plot-driven, personal investment on the part of your protagonist will up the ante. Find a way to tie your external stakes to your character’s family, backstory, or personal identity. Make the general situation — your external stakes — specific by making it matter to your protagonist on a deeper level. Think about Harry Potter: sure, the fate of the wizarding world is important, but Harry also wants to honor and avenge his parents.
Give your protagonist some focus
We’ve all met someone in real life who bounces from one thing to the next, letting life happen to them rather than commit to a single direction. After several Great New Things, we start to lose interest. They don’t seem to care deeply about anything for long — why should we?
Fictional characters can suffer from this, too. Your protagonist doesn’t need to be a laser-focused superhero, but they should have some level of direction and consistency in their desires. If they haven’t demonstrated a deep investment in your story’s stakes, readers will have no reason to get emotionally invested either.
Introduce a deadline
It seems like a cheap trick, but sometimes it’s just what your story needs. Stakes add an element of “or else” to your story. A time constraint dangles that or-else scenario at a specific point in the near future. Now readers care not only about the story problem getting solved, but getting solved before it’s too late.