By Writing Excuses | November 18, 2012 - 7:19 pm - Posted in Season 7, Theory and Technique

What are the things that matter to your characters? What things matter to your readers? After we get the obligatory ambiguity out of the way, we settle into talking about the “stakes” and the escalation thereof.

As authors, we want our readers to feel that something is at risk, and that action on the part of the protagonist is important. It might only be important to the protagonist, but whether the world is at stake, or just one person’s reputation, the reader needs to believe that this matters.

In many outlining techniques (three-act structure, seven-point story structure, Hollywood formula) the writer is told to “raise the stakes” at certain points. So, not only must we put things at risk, we must find ways to either increase the amount of risk, or increase the character response to the risk already present.

We talk about the sorts of things that can be treated as “stakes” in the stories we tell, and how we can go about raising those stakes.


Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Control Point: Shadow Ops, by Myke Cole, narrated by Corey Jackson

Writing Prompt: Raise the stakes without resorting to risks to reputation, livelihood, or mental health. Or explosions. Don't use those, either.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, November 18th, 2012 at 7:19 pm and is filed under Season 7, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. November 18, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

    This was a good one. Orson Scott’s Card Characters and viewpoint is a good read for this. That writing prompt is tough though. I’ve never seen any risen stakes a well placed explosion couldn’t solve. So the reader thinks the hero saved the day? Put a bomb in the muffin. Cut to credits. Imply sequel.

    Posted by Austin Charles
  2. November 19, 2012 @ 12:35 am

    Tried to get Legion via Audible as advertised in the podcast. The got my amazon login, name address, phone number then said the content wasn’t available in my country.

    Please include a disclaimer saying the offer is US only or talk to Audible about extending the offer to other English speaking countries. It’s this kind of region locking bullshit that makes publishing a dirty word.

    I’m not a writer, but your articles have been inspired me in other creative endevours. Keep up the good work.

    Posted by Matthew
  3. November 19, 2012 @ 8:07 am

    Great podcast. It had been running through my NaNo outline to see where I raised the stakes and how. I did fall into the personal threat to life followed by the larger threat to the entire werewolf pack. I think my biggest stakes are going to revolve around my main character exposing his affections for the alpha werewolf and thereby acknowledging to himself his sexual orientation.

    Posted by Michelle Knowtlon
  4. November 19, 2012 @ 11:13 am

    I noticed the other week that Writing Excuses now has some French-speaking listeners, so do you think that Mary could also record the announcement at the beginning of the episode in French?

    (I’m kidding, Mary.)

    Posted by Katya
  5. November 20, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    Hey, I have a somewhat unrelated question to Brandon, it’s regarding his snippet at the end of the podcast.

    Hi Brandon. I’ve heard a lot of good things about your new book and when I heard that you are giving it away for free on Audible I went straight there to download it. I found it and put it in my cart for $0.00 and proceeded to the checkout – I’m now forced to log in to my account or create one. I log in to my existing account. Now my cart is empty and there’s no Legion to listen to :/ Turns out I can’t have it just because I’m Swedish. I don’t think that is fair. Where can I buy your book, I’m looking to purchase Emperor’s Soul as well as Legion but since I can’t access them on Audible I’m unable to get them I think. Sucks that Audible have a lot of great writers books that I can’t access. I can’t remember who’s but I was actually forced to download the book of an author illegaly through a torrent site just because I could not find a way to purchase it.

    Anyway if you could help a poor swede out it would be great because I’m loving your past work and I’m eager to read the next one. Probably sound like a fanboy now but I was actually reading your books before you were announced as a writer for the WoT series, which I also enjoy of course. Favourite book for now is The Way of Kings so please have that out asap and available to us Swedes and the other poor countries who can’t access newly released stuff.

    Posted by Niclas Andersson
  6. November 20, 2012 @ 12:51 pm

    Niclas & Matthew, I’m sorry you had this experience. Audible didn’t tell us ahead of time what countries the offer would be available in—and when we were recording the spot, we didn’t think about it.

    There might be contractual reasons for it not to be available in the UK or (former) Commonwealth countries—but there’s no good reason it shouldn’t be available in Sweden. I will try to ask the Audible people.

    Posted by Peter Ahlstrom
  7. November 20, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

    Alright, thanks for the quick reply, it’s appreciated. I’ll keep an eye out on Audible then I suppose. Please if you find anything out though let us know so I won’t have to keep pressing F5 on for the rest of my life =)

    Posted by Niclas Andersson
  8. November 21, 2012 @ 8:01 am
  9. November 21, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    Loved the podcast. In fact, I’ve loved all the podcasts. This is just exactly what I needed to put some life back into the novel I’m writing.

    Question: This seems like advice for the writing process as you are writing the novel. Other advice seems like it’s for the revision process. Am I correct? There are so many rules, it seems like the only way you can fix some of them is during the revision process. Of course, since I’ve never revised a novel, I couldn’t know.

    Posted by Dan Cornell
  10. November 21, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    Thanksgiving! A great time for raising steak knives, and stuffing, and pies…

    Oh, and a transcript for the holidays. Enjoy!

    Posted by Mike Barker
  11. November 22, 2012 @ 9:49 am

    Great podcast!

    In my film classes we had a lecture on Raising the Stakes. When we got to how to raise the stakes when the character’s life was on the line, my professor actually suggested some of what you guys talked about, namely increasing the number of people who are on the line or changing the quality of the stakes.

    But, my Prof also suggested to raise the stakes you can reduce the likelihood the hero will survive or succeed. It’s the easiest way to deal with having a hero’s life on the line already since the hero can’t die twice. The stakes are raised relative to the hero’s ability to accomplish their goal. An example of this is the end of Die Hard, where John McClane is so close to saving Holly but he has only 2 bullets left. At that point the stakes are raised because John McClane’s normal method of solving problems (Shooting everyone) becomes impossible. He has only 2 bullets and he has to use them wisely.

    Posted by Bradford Y.
  12. November 26, 2012 @ 6:41 am

    What a challenging podcast. I’m listening this at the beginning of the last week of the Nano. and you guys forced me to look at my story only to realized that the stake or pretty low.Seriously guys look at what you’ve done to me, i’m so fueled up to write like a maniac and try to catch up my remaining 20k words before the 30th.

    Posted by Jeannot S.
  13. December 2, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    After focusing solely on nonfiction for years and years, I’ve decided to give fiction writing a chance. I was inspired by Brandon’s Mistborn. Series that I read over the last two weeks recovering from a car accident. It helped in more ways than one. I found this podcast and want to thank each of you for giving back to the writing community.

    I look forward to following along.

    Posted by Kurt
  14. December 16, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    As ever, an excellent podcast. I’ve been listening to this since season 1, and now find myself in the rather enjoyable position of working on the 3rd book of a three book deal.

    It struck me that what you were all discussing here is of particular importance in an ongoing series. As the books go on, it becomes fairly clear (because I’m not George RR Martin) who’s going to survive long-term. And so, while, I’m working on a a series driven primarily by a series of explosions, where the stakes really come from is from the smaller events – the character relations, their reputations, so that it becomes not a question of who will survive, but what will left standing after victory has been secured.

    Just thought I’d add that.

    Posted by Jonathan Wood
  15. September 30, 2013 @ 3:34 am

    […] Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes. […]