Stakes are what a story’s characters risk.
Stake is different from conflict.
If someone asks if your stakes are high enough in your story, they’re asking if your characters have a lot to lose if they fail to accomplish their mission.
If the dragon will let the princess go free just by the prince asking for her, there is no conflict, and the stakes are low.
If there is a fight to the death, the stakes are high.
The prince and princess will die if the dragon wins the battle against the prince. Two lives will be lost immediately. Those are high stakes.
High stakes give meaning to your story.
It glues readers to your pages and audiences to your screenplays.
In Star Trek, The Voyage Home, the stakes are simple: If the good guys fail to restore whales to Earth’s oceans, all the world’s waters will be removed, and everything and everyone in the world will die.
The entire existence of everything doesn’t have to be what’s put on the cosmic table in a story. A riveting story can have stakes that are much smaller and more personal.
In the classic children’s book, Charlotte’s Web, the spider, Charlotte, writes praise of the pig character in her web to keep him from being turned into hams and bacon.
One pig’s life is all that’s at stake in the story. But that’s all that’s needed.
Another thing to note about stakes: almost every character, large or small, in your story should have their own.
For instance, in the autobiographical novella Douglas Avenue by the late Sarkis Atamian, the father, Mr. Stepanian, must find work despite the Depression, or his immigrant family will starve.
The stakes for his son, Garo, are to negotiate somehow an entirely new language and culture in the neighborhood and school, or he will suffer the obliteration of self-worth.
A story that satisfies your readers is one where the stakes in the story are high enough.
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