Hi Fuse fans! It’s been a while since my last blog post, but as I do my yearly big push to catch up on all my submissions, I keep encountering a very common pitfall: the narrative without stakes.

I offer this critique often at conferences, and it’s often difficult for a newer author to really get what stakes are and why they matter. Conflict is a more general and readily identifiable concept in a novel. But without stakes, even a great idea for a conflict can leave a reader wondering “so what?” This is the absolute worst thing any reader — agent, editor, or person picking up your book at the store — can think.

So what are stakes, and how do they work?

  • The conflict is the What; the antagonist is the Who; the stakes are the Why.

A very common and understandable mistake many new writers make is crafting a narrative where the stakes are not high enough. At best, this leads to a sort of picaresque, where the hero meanders through various episodic adventures without any real urgency; this was a popular form for the early novel (the most famous example being Don Quixote), but it has largely fallen out of fashion.

At worst, the low stakes lead to a situation where the reader simply does not care whether or not the hero succeeds or fails.

  • The stakes to your conflict must be so high that failure is not an option.

The most obvious way to establish this is with life-and-death stakes—if the hero fails, she will die. This is pretty common in genre fiction like SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, or Thriller, where death is a real option potentially lurking around every corner.

Even in less action-packed genres, though, you need stakes that are sufficiently scary to keep the reader interested. If your Women’s Fiction protagonist is embarking on a bold new career path, make sure she doesn’t have a safe, easy option to go back to if it doesn’t take off.

  • Have your characters play without a net, on terms where failure would ruin them. Make it so the only direction they can move is forward.

It’s important to make sure that failure is not an option not only for the protagonist herself, but also for the entire world of the novel:

  • The stakes to your conflict must be so high that failure will make the world worse; it is not sufficient for failure to mean a return to the status quo.

This is especially vital to remember in settings that are already pretty dire, where the protagonist has to right the wrongs of the world and make things better. If failure just means that the world continues to suck, there’s no reason for the reader to be particularly engaged by this hero in particular. Sure, maybe this one fails; but no harm, no foul—it’s just a return to the status quo, and maybe some other hero will fix things later.

  • Your hero’s potential failure needs to be a catastrophic outcome that would make a crappy world even crappier.

For example: in the Hunger Games series, if Katniss Everdeen fails in her quest to overthrow the dystopian government, things will not remain the same—the stakes have been raised sufficiently by the events of the series that the Capitol is now cracking down much more ruthlessly on the oppressed districts. If Katniss fails, Panem will fall into even deeper ruin than before.

Katniss triumphs, more or less. An example of a hero who fails would be Ned Stark in A Game of Thrones, whose defeat sends the already grim world of Westeros spiraling into total chaos—the multi-protagonist structure of that book allows the author to showcase both a failed heroic narrative and the terrible consequences of that failure.

For more tips on narrative structure and plotting (primarily in SciFi/Fantasy, which is my specialty), you can see my 99 cent ebook THE SHORT FUSE GUIDE TO PLOTTING YOUR NOVEL, a 37-page guide to some of these concepts that I wrote to celebrate the Fuse rebranding last year.

If I see you at a conference pitch session, the first things I’ll ask for are the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Don’t sit down without the ability to tell me about all four of those things!