High Stakes

(NOTE: I'm still looking for beta readers. If you want in, let me know soon.)

It feels like editors and agents online are constantly asking "What are the stakes?" when they look at queries or stories. For the longest time, I didn't understand what this meant. I'm still not sure, but I think I get it (though whether I can see it in my own writing is a different story).

It's like playing poker without betting. While it's a mildly interesting exercise in probability, it doesn't really matter who wins. It's boring, because nothing's at stake.

Likewise, the reader needs to know not only the protagonist's goals, but why those goals are important. What will happen if they fail? What will happen if they succeed? Why does it matter? Without that, the story (or query) is just a bunch of random stuff that happens.

Take Cars (because it's what my boys are watching right now). Lightning McQueen wants to be the first rookie to ever win the Piston Cup. That should be stakes enough, right? Well, not really. Winning is something, but just like in poker, it doesn't matter as much without something at stake.

That's why Dinoco is mentioned like 20 or 30 times. Dinoco is the big sponsor for the Piston Cup. They've got the helicopter, the glamour girls, the ritzy parties, everything. Their poster boy is retiring, and they're looking for someone new to sponsor - whoever wins the Piston Cup. This is in contrast to Lightning's current sponsor, an ointment for cars with rusty bumpers. It's gross, it's poor, and it's demeaning.

Those are the stakes. If Lightning wins, he gets fame and the high life. If he loses, he's stuck being the poster boy for old, rusty cars. Take the sponsors out, and the race doesn't have as much meaning. At least that's the idea.

So easy to see in someone else's work. So hard to see in my own.

10 comments:

Natalie Whipple said...

Yes, it's so easy to see in other people's stuff. I'm pretty sure I have high stakes, but it would take me a second to think about.

Also, if you want a lesson in stakes, read The Hunger Games. That's high stakes on steroids. Though it was so tense I think I lost a few mental years reading it, heh. I'm emotional like that.

Unknown said...

You're still missing it.
All that race stuff is just fluff.
Think about the CHOICE Lightning makes, right at the end. Remember, he loses the race. What was really at stake? The race is secondary. Sponsorship is secondary. He makes a choice to help the wrecked car cross the finish line. Why? Why does he sacrifice a guaranteed win and sponsorship? What did he stand to lose if he won? Those are the stakes.

Adam Heine said...

You're right, Lapetus. At the end there's definitely more at stake than just the sponsorship, but the basic stakes are what draw the audience into the story. The whole Dinoco thing is what makes us care at all that this arrogant jerk of a race car is stuck doing community service, when he should be in California.

But that's a good point. It's not enough to say, "This is what's at stake" and leave it at that. In poker, the stakes are constantly being raised. Stories, too.

Unknown said...

The point is that when you write a query, you want to focus on the ultimate/highest stakes of the story.
If I wrote a query for Cars, I wouldn't say "Lightning needs to choose which sponsor fits him best", I would say "Lightning needs to choose between his career and his friends"

This is what's missing in your query in a different post: what is the ultimate choice/the highest stakes in the book? Focus on that and your query will shine.

Adam Heine said...

I just checked out the Hunger Games on Amazon. That look's awesome. You know all the cool YA stuff, Natalie. Where do you hear about it all?

Anne Lang Bundy said...

It's boring, because nothing's at stake.

Everything is at stake, for everyone involved:

for publishing professionals, who must judge thousands of submissions with their reputations, their careers, and their families' income all at stake;

for writers, who expose before strangers the guts of their souls, who dare to act upon dreams which may be given life only in their hearts, who must learn to live—even thrive—on a diet of rejection;

for God Almighty, Who gifts individuals with the ability to make thoughts concrete using only the abstract, Who watches to see for whose (or Whose) glory we will use the gift, Who waits for us to declare "Blessed be the name of the Lord" regardless of what doors He opens or closes, regardless of how He chooses to use His servants.

Adam Heine said...

Anne, you're totally invited to our next poker game :-)

Anne Lang Bundy said...

I totally accept. Name the date & time!

Unknown Blogger said...

It just dawned on me why I enjoy reading this blog so much Adam. You analyze your writing and the process with the mind of a scientist / software programmer.

Also, any references to poker are sure to pique my interest!

Hi to Cindy & Sean from me & Jamey!
Andy

Adam Heine said...

Thanks, Andy! You know we actually got to play Hold 'Em the other day and I thought of you. Cindy killed us. I went all in with 2 pair and she pulled a flush on the river!