Lesson 4 of 5

Make The Stakes Relatable

It’s all very well having your hero saving the galaxy from a fleet of flesh-eating robots — a high-stakes task if there ever was one — but that’s not exactly a relatable experience for the average reader.

The reader will need to invest in the story as much as the hero does, and to do that we must make the stakes something that readers can relate to.

Relatable doesn’t mean that your character has to be likeable. The laziest note you can get from readers is: the characters aren’t likeable… as if making them all sweetness and light will transform the book into a bestseller. What they really mean is: the characters aren’t interesting. There are plenty of bestselling novels with awful protagonists who do terrible things but, crucially, they are interesting and engaging.

Even in stories with large-scale stakes, where the very fate of the free world depends on your hero’s success, it’s important to establish personal stakes. Yes, the flesh-eating robots will rule over the galaxy, but your protagonist’s son has also been kidnapped by them and she never got to tell him how much she loved him (okay, that's corny, but you get the idea). Of course, we want the universe to be saved, but readers are far more likely to invest in the personal element of the story, because they can relate to them.

I once saw a wonderful short film called Contrapelo at the London Film Festival where a Mexican barber has to shave the Capo of a drug cartel. This barber is briefly left alone with the Capo and has the opportunity to cut the throat of the man who brings misery and death to so many, including the barber’s own family… but would killing make him any better than the Capo?

I’ve never been a barber, I’ve never had the opportunity to cut the throat of a cartel capo (not that I can recall, anyway)… but I can definitely relate to the stakes and consequences of violence.

Stakes don’t have to be life and death. Just relatable. Look at this amazing Twitter thread about a sixteen-year-old whose family is relying on them to provide food for ChristmasWhat are the stakes? If they fail, Christmas is ruined. Great storytelling.

ACTIVITY

Think of five stories you know well. What are the stakes? And what kind of stakes are they? Access the worksheet here.

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