Stakes Is High

Last week, I talked about the importance of connecting with a character to make a story compelling.

This week, I’d like to continue the discussion, but move it more into the storyline. What if the characters are fine, you like them, you connect with them, but the stakes just aren’t high enough to compel you to keep reading?

Not so much in a DNF way, but in an ‘I’ll finish when I remember to, where did I put it, oh, here’s a good recipe for Brussels sprouts, lemme read that’ way.

I am currently editing a book that has that issue, and I have to figure out how to address it. My characters are interesting, multi-faceted and dynamic, but their stakes are simply not high enough.

Stakes need to be high to compel readers to move onto the next chapter. Like a movie or a TV show that has a deadline–House has to save a life before the unknown virus eats a life, Harry needs to quash Voldemort before he gets enough bad wizards backing him, Edward has to keep Bella safe without turning her into a vampire–books need that kind of compelling plot point, an external one, to reinforce the inner turmoil. I don’t think inner turmoil is enough. I want there to be an actual threat of death, or ruination, or irrevocable life change, for those characters. Something to make me read, even though it’s midnight and 7:04am (yeah, weird, but whatev) comes quickly.

For this book, then, I am going to make it so the hero realizes that if he and the heroine are together, they will be under a constant threat of death because of their respective circumstances (it’s an interracial nineteenth century romance).

What are your favorite time deadline stories? What book surprised you with its solution because you never thought the characters could get out of their situation?


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Diane Gaston
13 years ago

Oh, gosh, those are hard questions, Megan. I can never remember what book or movie unless someone nudges me.

I am a sucker for those “the world will be destroyed unless XXX” movies, like Independence Day. And I do like books that have a ticking clock. I just can’t think of any!!

Just thought of one.
Around the World in 80 Days with David Niven and Shirley Maclaine. They thought they lost the bet…forgetting about the International dateline. Saw that movie when I was a kid and the brain was young. It made an impression!

I also remember that Shirley Maclaine walked into Niven’s Gentlemen’s Club, horrifying the old men. That made an impression on me!!

Megan Frampton
13 years ago


I’ve only seen the Tweety Bird version of Around the World (lame, right?), but I do remember the int’l dateline thing.

And I think, tho’ I haven’t seen that either, that a time deadline is entirely 24’s premise.

13 years ago

LOTR, the movies. Is it in the Two Towers where the Rohirrim ride out to certain death? And then there’s that awful battle where defeat looks inevitable … until the elves show up.

There was something similar–a grand battle where our heroes seemed doomed–in The Deed of Paksenarrion. Again, very convincing.

I like the idea of novels where something other than death is on the table. (Although death is always good, of course.) Social ruin, for ex, in a regency.

13 years ago

I’m with Diane, those are hard questions. I can never remember specifics unless I’m nudged. With time deadlines I always think of movies like James Bond, the world will end kind of thing.

But you are so right there has to be a sense of urgency and something that really compels you to stay up or keep picking up the book otherwise you constantly looking for something better to do.

I guess with characters I want one to save the other from themselves or them to save each other from destruction.

13 years ago

Kwana, I liked your comment about characters saving each other! Yes. Very romantic.

Amanda McCabe
13 years ago

“I guess with characters I want one to save the other from themselves or them to save each other from destruction”

Oh, well put, Kwana! This is really the essence of my favorite romances, I think. Even better when the two can be combined. 🙂

Louisa Cornell
13 years ago

Spot on, Kwana! The very essence of romance!

Jane Feather’s newest – Wicked Ways of a Husband has that sort of “oh no, are they going to make it” scenario. Very enjoyable.

And Nicola Cornick’s Wayward Widow where her husband comes back from the dead and she’s married to someone else and you think “How is she going to get out of this?” Because you hate the first husband and love the second. And the solution was a stunner!

I like those end of the world movies too – Independence Day, Star Wars.

And the Lord of the Rings movies have all kinds of deadlines underneath one great big deadline. Love it!

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