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Is there a formula for creating stakes?

5

I thrive off of formulas. I don't do well with brainstorming or figuring out how things in my stories should happen, but I can make a lot of progress if there's a one-size-fits-all formula which can consistently nudge me in the right direction. Over the years, I've developed formulas for almost every aspect of writing that I can, except for one: stakes.

Without fail, every single time I sit down to develop and outline a new story, the one thing which will always stop my progress dead is the stakes. It's always been this way. I've done lots of research into stakes, and I have a very good grasp on how to escalate stakes, and an excellent understanding of what kind of stakes I need in which situation. But the one thing which always trips me up is how to create them in the first place.

Question: Is there a formula/process which will help me create/brainstorm stakes?

A quick Google search reveals endless information on how to raise or escalate stakes. But nothing on how to actually create them in the first place. I seem to have the opposite problem of most other writers: where they have stakes and struggle to raise them, I have little trouble raising them but don't have them to begin with.


Note: I know some writers might greatly dislike the idea of applying formulas to everything, and might be tempted to tell me that I'm going about it the wrong way. Please realize that such an answer will not help me. I am a plotter, and not a pantser or discovery writer. Formulas are what allow me to write.


Example: In my current story, my main character starts out living the life he most desires. However, he, for some reason (this is where I need help), has an overpowering need to help people who need him. If he sees someone who is lost, he is compelled to lead them. As the story progresses, this need increasingly keeps the character from his idyllic existence, until by the end he is forced to forsake his old life forever. My question is... why? The character's choice to help those in need is the right one, but he has multiple opportunities to leave those in need and simply rest back in his old life. The excuse that 'he can't do so with a clear conscience' only goes so far, as he ultimately decides that he must permanently lead and help these people, removing any hope of ever going back to his old life. I need a really good reason he's forced to that conclusion, even though he wants his old life with all his heart, but that reason - or stake - eludes me.

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6 answers

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Raising the stakes is a gambling term. It refers to betting more and more on a game as time goes on, often in the hopes of redeeming past losses. It is not hard to understand why gamblers raise the stakes. What is hard is to understand is why they gamble.

This seems to apply to fiction as well. Why does the gambler gamble? Because they want something. A character is a person with a desire. Without desire we do not act, and if we do not act, we are not actors, and if we are not actors were are not, for any useful dramatic purpose, characters.

A simple character is a person with one desire, and some impediment in realizing it. If a millionaire wants a sandwich, they go out and buy a sandwich. There is no drama in that. If a bum wants a sandwich, there is an impediment to his desire, and therefore the possibility of drama.

But the drama is not particularly compelling yet. The bum begs on the street until someone gives him enough to buy a sandwich. Desire met. The end. The bum is not putting anything at risk to achieve their desire. They are not raising the stakes.

But suppose the bum is too proud to beg. Now the bum has to put his pride at risk if he wants a sandwich. If he begs and gets nothing, he may lose his pride and still go hungry. That is stakes.

Stakes is simply something the character values that will have to be put at risk to achieve something he desires. To create stakes for your character, first decide what their desire is going to be, then ask yourself, what else to they value that will have to be put at risk if they are to achieve their desire. And that is your stakes.

The development of the story follows the attempts of the hero to attain their desire while taking the fewest risks -- betting with the lowest stakes. As the story continues and their losses mount, they are forced to keep raising the stakes by putting more of what they value at risk, until they finally go all in, at which point they may win their desire and get back what they put at risk, or gain their desire but lose their stakes (a bittersweet or even futile ending) or lose both their stakes and their desire (a tragic ending).

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4

Based on your example, it sounds like you're looking for stakes in the form of "If (protagonist) doesn't help these people who need help, then (something bad) will happen." You want stakes in the form of a motivating force.

As Mark Baker pointed out, this boils down to desires. One of your character's desires is to remain in his comfortable life. He needs something to compel him out of it.

I've always found it helpful to distinguish internal from external conflict. I personally tend to write the internal conflict much more easily than externals, but let's look at examples of both and see how those might reveal a formula.

Internal conflict

Something within the protagonist won't let him ignore pleas for help. He can't walk away from them. He might try to do so - and he might succeed at first - but then his conscience gets the better of him and he finds himself walking past the same street corner as yesterday, hoping he'll see the beggar once more, just so that he has a chance to act this time.

What would make someone do that? If we want an internal reason, we need an emotional reason.

  • Guilt 1: He feels guilty when he sees someone in need. Is this because he narrowly escaped their same fate? Why is he the lucky one?
  • Guilt 2: Did his father admonish him to never look down on people who appear weaker? Even though dad died ten years ago, his shadow still looms.
  • Guilt 3: Did he cause their affliction? Was he a corporate overlord who thoughtlessly used his employees until they were used up?
  • Empathy: Did he used to be like that? Does he know what it's like?
  • Fear: Is he one wrong step away from poverty/illness/misfortune himself?

Internal conflict usually means looking into a character's past and finding formative experiences. Their ghost, if you will. The way to do this analytically would be to work backward. We know the effect: protagonist helps people. Now we need a personal, emotional reason he does so: pick an emotion (guilt, empathy, fear) to explain his actions. Finally, we need a source for that emotion: a tragic event, an inspirational role model, a vision of his own past or future. Once you have the ghost, you have a changed character capable of actions that work against their own goals.

As a side note, the story become so much more compelling when you work this ghost into it in other ways. What other effects does it have upon your protagonist? Who does he owe a favor to for saving his life, or who owes him? Does he overcome his ghost by the end? If so, that's a powerful emotional arc.

External conflict

Something in the world has made it more logical to help people than to only think about himself. What could do that?

  • Bullying: If he takes 5 minutes to help someone cross the street, does he have a chance of missing the elevator ride with his cranky coworker?
  • Romance: If he takes 5 minutes to help someone cross the street, does he have a chance of bumping into his crush? Or perhaps it's not timing-related, but it won't hurt if she sees him being a gentleman. Or is he aware that she volunteers at the homeless shelter on the weekends?
  • Long-term goals: If he gives his money away to the beggar on the corner, does that allow him to walk right by the store/bakery without being tempted to buy?
  • Appeasement: Does he need to befriend three strangers by the end of summer or else he forfeits his inheritence?
  • Resources: Does the street urchin notice everyone who walks by, including the man the protagonist is tracking?

External conflict means finding a reason for someone to act a specific way using outside pressure. I think we'd take a similar approach to internal conflict and look for the chain of cause and effect. With externals, the cause has to be something outside of the protagonist's head which means we have other actors in this drama. Someone else's desires are calling the shots, and the protagonist is just reacting in the most advantageous way he can.

Conflicts and stakes work best when they're layered together. Give your protagonist internal and external reasons to be kind. Ultimately, there needs to be something more important - more emotionally dangerous, more physically irresistible - than his desire for comfort, and suddenly he will perform the plot actions you need.

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Your problem could be summarized as follows:

If your protagonist's life is really totally perfect in any way, he has no reason to change anything. End of story.

So if you want to have a story, then the protagonist's life must not be perfect. It may look perfect, but there is still this one little detail that disturbs the perfection. And that one little detail is what drives your hero to do something about it. Which ultimately leads him into the direction you want.

So the formula might look as follows:

  • The perfect world isn't really perfect. There is a seemingly small problem that is solved in the way you want the story to go.

  • The solution at first seems to work → positive feedback

  • But it doesn't work as well as originally thought → more is needed.

  • More effort means more investment (higher stakes), but also more gratification for parts that work out → a positive feedback loop

  • Due to the positive feedback, the whole thing slowly morphs from being a means to an end into being an end in itself.

  • The shifting priorities finally drive him to put at stake the very thing the desire to protect originally drove him into action.

For example, his life is perfect, except for this one beggar that always sits in front of his house. He may see that beggar only as annoyance, but the true reason he does so is that deep inside he knows that the little bubble he built for himself is not the whole world, and this beggar is the outside world disturbing his little perfect bubble. He knows that the big bad world may at some time burst his little bubble, and that is a danger he doesn't want to be reminded of. But all that is not at his conscious level; the conscious part is just, there's this beggar in front of his door, and the beggar annoys him.

So he has a seemingly small problem to solve: Get the beggar away from the door. Now there are many ways. He may call the police and have the beggar removed. Or if he is truly evil, he kills the beggar and hides the corpse.

But your protagonist is not evil, he's in his heart a very good person. A person who would frown on the thought of the police removing that beggar by force, because after all, it's not the beggar's fault. So he finds an easy solution to get rid of this beggar without having a bad conscience: He just pays the beggar for not sitting in front of his door. He is happy with this because it's a win-win situation: He no longer has the beggar in front of the door, and the beggar gets money, and doesn't even have to beg for it. And he certainly can afford it.

Except that there's a problem. Soon another beggar starts sitting at his door. Now he can do the same solution again, but he realizes that this would be a temporary solution again, and he has simply not enough money to pay all the beggars to go away.

Therefore he starts to thing about a more general solution: If there are no beggars to begin with, there are no beggars sitting in front of his door. Again, he's not the man who would advocate for forcefully removing the beggars from the town or similar; also through his previous action he is already primed for solving the problem through helping. So he starts thinking about how to solve poverty, because without poverty, there are no beggars.

But to do so, he also must invest more effort. Effort that might not pay out. That is, stakes. Also, he might piss of others that are not as kind, and would prefer the police solution to begging, and who fear that solving poverty will worsen their lives because it costs money.

And as he fights against poverty, he loses sight of his original problem, the beggar in front of his door. Seeing beggars turns from the primary problem to be solved into a symptom of the actual problem to be solved. He no longer fights poverty because he hates seeing beggars. He now hates seeing beggars because it means he still hasn't successfully fought poverty.

And with fighting poverty now being his primary goal, he is willing to risk the very living style that he originally tried to protect by fighting poverty.

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There is a formula! Mechanically, stakes are rather straightforward;

  • The protagonist has a goal.
  • The antagonist (or antagonistic force) is doing something that gets in the way of said goal.
  • In the conflict that ensues, there is a real possibility that the protagonist will fail to achieve their goal.

That possibility of failure is your stakes. And you raise the stakes by finding a way to make the consequences of failure more severe.

In the movie The Incredibles, Mr. Incredible has two primary goals throughout: He wants to be a respectable family man, but he also wants to get to relive the glory days of openly being a superhero. In the first act of the movie, he receives a mysterious message from an unknown benefactor promising to make him into a proper hero again. He does what they tell him to, slipping away from his family to go on a secretive mission... At this point, the biggest risk is that he has to hide all of this from his family. The stakes are that if he's found out, his marriage will be in jeopardy. These stakes are real, but they're not very high at all. This is a good place for the movie to start - we're invested enough to care, but the stakes have plenty of room to be pushed further.

In the second act of the movie, we find out that Mr. Incredible's mysterious benefactor is the supervillain Syndrome. At the same time, Mr. Incredible's family finds out what he's been up to and follows after him. When Mr. Incredible is captured and Syndrome nearly kills his family, we realize that the stakes have been raised dramatically. Our hero no longer merely risks having his family fall apart - they are in grave danger and could be killed! And more painfully, Bob has to come face-to-face with the fact that had he never gone behind his wife's back, his family never would have gotten caught up in this mess. The conflict presses against Mr. Incredible's two main goals far more painfully.

At the movie's climax, the stakes are raised even further. Syndrome drops a giant robot in the middle of a city. When he loses control of it, thousands of innocents' lives are in danger. Now, the Incredible family has a chance to openly be superheros once more, if only for a moment - but to be successful, they'll have to put all of the built-up distrust and miscommunication from the rest of the movie aside to work together as a true team. The stakes still relate to the core goals, but they've been raised to the point where failure means countless people die.

To brainstorm stakes, hone in on exactly what your protagonists' goals are. Then, figure out what can go wrong if those goals aren't met. Figure out how to start with moderately serious consequences at the beginning of your story, then snowball those consequences into worse and worse outcomes to match the pace of your rising action.

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1

Answer: In a case like this, the formula is to use others--your character's relationships with his own past self and/or with those he cares about, to create stakes.

Example: He wants to help others because if he fails to do so, his father will no longer approve of him. How can his father approve of him if he does not do the most simple of mitzvahs? For your character to fail to help others means he risks his relationship with his father.

Those are the stakes.

Like you, I am a plotter. The formula is to think outside the character. Your character does not exist in a vacuum. Look to the person they care most about. Your character is acting as he is, for that person's benefit.

HTH.

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Stakes come down to emotions, your characters need to have emotions or perhaps in the case of scifi machine characters, something that replaces emotion as a motivating force.

+1 Mark Baker, yes these are "desires", but to me "desire" is too generalized.

The emotion could be guilt; or romantic love, or hatred, or lust. It could be parental love. It could be outrage at injustice. It could be empathy for pain. It could be love of a sibling or a friend.

Your character living an idyllic life is either a normal human being, or a sociopath. Sociopaths are only concerned for themselves and no others. They don't feel guilt, they don't mind causing pain for their own selfish gain, they don't fall in love. The emotions they feel are all self-centered: lust, anger, satisfaction at revenge or cruelty, superiority or egomania, careless laughter at the suffering of others because they have zero empathy.

The sociopaths are the villains of the world. They don't care about future generations, or often their own children. They care about assets and defenses so they can do whatever they want, as cruelly as they want, to live their own perfect life as little kings with all their own physical desires satisfied.

If your character is a sociopath, his goals are private and sensual, often with wealth and power topping the list, usually with many servants, sexual and otherwise, on demand. Often with extremely expensive tastes in entertaining himself, like owning sports teams, or being dictator of a country. The power over lives, life and death, is a form of lust, and for sociopaths often satisfying to exercise by causing death.

Otherwise, if your character is like roughly 98% of people, pick an unselfish emotion to create stakes. These are other-centered. Don't think just "positive", disgust with a sociopath beating their child in public is an other-centered emotion. A rich white man hating the KKK is an other-centered emotion; because the KKK doesn't hate him for the color of his skin.

Of course positive emotions toward others serve too: He is exposed to the conditions of orphans, being cared for by a tragically underfunded facility, and cannot get them out of his mind. He may try to be selfish, to put them out of his mind, but he goes somewhere to have fun and all he can think about is the price of his dinner could have bought twenty children a hot meal. His airfare could have bought 30 beds.

Ultimately his priorities change, he has to help. The personal satisfaction of that, derived from seeing his help work, is fine. Until it dissipates, and he has to help some more.

The stakes are based on unselfish emotions, such as an intolerance to unfairness or suffering in others.

Stakes can be based on other-love, of course, loving their spouse or child more than they love their own comfort or wealth.

The stakes that destroy what your character thought was his perfect life, are created by realizing he cannot be happy in that life as long as he cares about some other people. He has to choose between being a sociopath that only cares about himself, and sacrificing those pleasures to do the right thing. And in the end, out of his love for others, he chooses sacrifice, because he could not live with himself otherwise.

The ending, of course, is up to you. It can still be a satisfying story if his decision to sacrifice everything still leaves him being satisfied, with a new perfect life that isn't so self-centered. Or if he decides to risk everything, but succeeds without losing everything. Many heroes go into the final battle with their life on the line, outnumbered and bound to lose, and emerge wounded but victorious.

In your case, you seem to be writing a normal character. He will have normal emotions, perhaps buried, but he cannot be entirely self-centered. Some other-centered emotions have to move him to act, at first perhaps believing he can mollify those emotions without interrupting his lifestyle, they just need a little cash and he has it, but ultimately that isn't enough. Once he got involved he was exposed to MORE of the misery or injustice, and needs to do MORE. Those are the escalations; once the altruist or love-of-another in him is awakened, it takes over his life and he just cannot turn back.

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