Stakes are king, no matter where you are in the process From roughing out a basic storyline to writing a novel, from chopping and pruning a completed novel to querying it (or, for that matter, going on submission, publishing, or talking to Oprah about your book), high stakes define success or failure more than any single factor. Unfortunately, what exactly constitutes “high stakes” in a manuscript or query defies an easy definition.In the real world, and dictionaries, stakes refer to risk and/or the degree of interest in the outcome. That’s not a bad jumping off point. What a character stands to lose (or fail to gain) if the obstacles you so mercilessly throw at her throughout act two and the three extras you surprise her with in act three trip her up create stakes for that character. But that’s still merely a jumping off point, and mistaking it for the endpoint can make even the most revved-up powerful set of stakes sputter and stall like a 1968 Shelby GT 350 that just ran out of gas.
So, what goes in the tank? Characters. Characters are what give that engine -- the stakes, or “interest in the outcome” -- the fuel it needs to move and, hopefully, pull the reader/agent along. Even the most dire, end-of-the-world, realistic, and believable stakes are only as important as the lens through which they are seen. Which is to say, they only matter to the extent we care about the characters experiencing them. Plenty of people cried about the losses suffered at the Battle of Hogwarts, an imaginary battle at a fictional school for wizards. By contrast, I’m pretty sure everyone I was in the theater with when I saw Pearl Harbor was in the uncomfortable position of secretly rooting for the Japanese by the time they finally attacked the insipid batch of characters the screenwriters threw into what had been a truly horrific, real-world battle. Independent of the characters, there is no question which stakes should and would matter more.
But stakes simply cannot exist independently of the characters. If they could, every book would have the end of the world as its “stakes” and each would be a bestseller and there would be nothing more to worry about. When it comes to querying, that presents a bigger potential pitfall for writers with objectively huge “stakes” than it does those whose stories come down to the impact on one or two of the characters. Our pulses only quicken to (at best, when everything is going well) match the pulse of the characters who are actually facing the menace, threat, pain, problems. A beautifully broken heart or the loss of a beloved dog or a wrongfully shattered relationship being rightfully mended can outpace a nuclear war any day.
The trick, when querying, is to remember that. We don’t get enough words to actually invest agents in our characters, but they’re also painfully aware of that. We DO get enough words to show them that the stakes matter to and through our characters, which is enough to get them to read those first few sample pages where they can be introduced to them. If the description of stakes accomplishes that, it’s done its job.