Writing books and teachers and workshop leaders often get to this question about a manuscript: WHAT’S AT STAKE? What is your character risking to get what he wants? What is at stake in your story as a whole? For example, in Harry Potter there are always lots of minor things at stake in scenes (passing a test, getting in trouble with Snape etc...), and his life is often at stake and there’s also usually the threat against a friend or friends, the school, his whole world. The stakes are constantly raised as the story progresses. In Michael Chabon’s great novel WONDERBOYS what’s at stake are the careers of an older writer and a younger writer—at first. But as the characters are developed it becomes much more than that, it becomes each of their futures and what they will be as men and writers. The story twists around so the deepening of character occurs as the stakes are raised. In my novel ALIEN INVASION AND OTHER INCONVENIENCES the stakes begin with the survival of Jesse, my main character, but it’s obvious before long that the survival of all humans, except as alien slaves, is also at stake. Threats to that survival (both Jesse’s, his friends, and mankind, womankind, all kind) grow as various things happen in the book and the stakes are raised. Also, the characters develop, come to want more than just to survive, and this forces them to act in ways that the stakes are raised.
I think what’s at stake can be looked at scene by scene. A boy risks telling a girl he loves her; she says, “Don’t be a fool, Brandon. I think of you as a brother.” Then, of course, any number of reactions might occur. He decides to become an evil warlord and conquer the world so he can show her; that would be one oh-so-obvious one, but there are others. Not every scene needs to have something at stake. Some scenes will be devoted to developing characters in ways that aren’t about raising stakes, but there should be some arc, some structure in which stakes are raised as the novel moves toward its end.
Or so I think today.