Nicole Tourtelot has been a literary agent at Kuhn Projects since 2012. Before that, she worked in the literary department at ICM Partners (literary and talent agency), in the fiction department of Esquire magazine, and as a researcher for the Freakonomics authors. Like many other agents and editors, when deciding whether to take on a new project Tourtelot says she looks for
“well-drawn, relatable characters and a high-stakes story.”
But Tourtelot clarifies that kind of story doesn’t necessarily involve characters in dangerous situations. Thriller, horror and mystery aren’t the only genres that call for high stakes. There are plenty of stories that only need high emotional stakes for the main character.
Two different kinds of stakes
Stakes, in a work of fiction, are the things that are at risk for the main characters—for either gain or loss. Examples: If Adam can only surmount all these obstacles, he’ll gain his only heart’s desire. If Janice doesn’t surmount all these obstacles, she’ll lose the battle and the world will come to an end. There are huge risks (high stakes) involved here, for the very biggest of gains and the biggest of losses.
These are also two good examples of risking either an intensely personal failure or a very public failure.
According to C S Lakin, stakes primarily come in these two forms: public and personal. If the consequences of failure extend beyond their impact on the main character, the stakes are public. If the goal means everything in the world to only the main character, the stakes are obviously personal. The public stakes story may be grander and the the personal stakes story may be smaller and more focused, but neither has intrinsically higher stakes. Both have the capacity to make the reader weep at failure or shout with joy at success. And isn’t that what we’re aiming for?
Note: The very best and most intense stories will probably have both.
That’s because (and you know this!) Story is always all about the character and how that character fights for her goal.
How high do stakes need to be?
Stakes don’t need to involve the fate of the world or even the outcome of a war. Failure doesn’t have to mean complete humiliation or utter alienation and despair. The stakes just have to be hugely important to one person, but that person better be your main character—and your reader.
Stakes don’t even have to be about something familiar. In the movie The Imitation Game, we’re all tensely hoping Alan Turing can break the Nazi code in time to win World War II. We can’t figure out what Turing’s machine does or how he works it, but we watch those wheels turn and hold our collective breath. We even know the outcome and we’re still apprehensive! When we find out the character we’ve admired and been rooting for all along might lose everything because his gamble to avoid a detestable law fails, we’re devastated. This plot is a perfect example of combining public stakes (the war with Germany) and private stakes (Turing’s illegal homosexuality).
The simple answer is: The stakes need to be high enough to the main character that he is willing to risk everything (even death). Readers will be invested in the outcome of this kind of story, even if it’s set in the past, or a fantasy universe, or a high school for delinquents in Brooklyn.
In a comedy, the action might be fun, but the tension comes from stakes that mean something to the main character(s). A quick example of this is Susan Cooper’s race to find a nuclear weapon and stay alive long enough to prove she’s a real CIA agent in Spy.
You can reach Nicole Tourtelot at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CS Lakin is a novelist, a copyeditor, a writing coach, a mom, a backpacker, and a whole bunch of other things. She also teaches workshops on the writing craft at writers’ conferences and retreats.