Read Time: 3 minutes

My first story coach offered me a refund.

Full or partial. Whatever I needed to feel whole.


An emailed explained my eligibility. Here are a few quotes:

  • “I couldn’t tell you the main storyline.”
  • “I can’t tell you, with confidence, what anybody in this story was trying to accomplish.”
  • “I can’t coach what I can’t comprehend.”


I dreamed my story would inspire people… instead it inspired a new refund policy.

Because my plot moved without focus. My characters lacked purpose. My novel was a hopeless opus.

This revelation forced me to consider two options:

  1. EITHER: Pack it up because this whole writing thing was just too hard.
  2. OR: Acknowledge my deficiencies and keep grinding.


Your craft isn’t easy. It’s often a pain in the azz. 

But giving up would cost too much. You’d feel empty if you quit. As if you gave up on a calling.

So you must continue until you create a story you’re proud to publish. Because the finish line offers a dream come true.

Those are high stakes, storyteller.

Your story must deliver also high stakes.

Because today’s readers demand overwhelming reasons to stay engaged. Readers always ask themselves why they should care about your story. A weak plot or shallow characters push people to check out. Or check Twitter.

So you must challenge your audience to care — for hundreds of pages. And that means you better infuse high stakes into your story’s heart.

high stakes hī-stāks

: a situation involving a lot of risk or serious consequences

High stakes are the the possible outcomes directly tied to your hero’s and villain’s story goals.

Each character’s high stakes involve an Either/Or scenario. i.e. Life or death, freedom or imprisonment, love or loneliness, etc.

The big story I submitted to my aforementioned writing coach did not possess any clearly defined stakes. It truly was a hopeless opus.

But I never once considered the refund offer.

Because the feedback drove me to learn that readers want and need characters driven by high stakes.

Use this simple formula to infuse high stakes into your story’s heart:

    • High Stakes Formula:

      • If (Hero) does not (Hero’s story goal), then (Villain) will (Villain’s story goal)

Examples from Best-selling Novels:

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

    • High Stakes Formula:

      • If (Frodo Baggins) does not (Destroy the Ring to save Middle-earth), (Sauron) will (Obtain the ring to enslave Middle-earth)

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    • High Stakes Formula:

      •  If (Nick Dunne) does not (Prove his innocence in wife’s disappearance), then (Amy Dunn) will (frame her husband for her disappearance)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

    • High Stakes Formula:

      • If (Katniss) does not (survive the games & rebel against President Snow’s dictatorship), then (President Snow) will (keep control of Panem & end the legacy of the mockingjay)

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

    • High Stakes Formula:

      • If (Thomas) does not (Escape the imprisonment of the Maze), then (the Grievers) will (Contain & kill all Gladers in the Maze)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

    • High Stakes Formula:

      • If (Ender Wiggins) does not (Destroy the alien species called “buggers”), then (the buggers) will (terminate the human race)

The High Stakes Formula is a simple trick to focus and collide your hero’s and villain’s story goals into a cohesive plot. It also reinforces the reason your audience should continue to turn the page and root for (or against) your core characters.

If you don’t clearly communicate your story’s high stakes, readers may feel like my first story coach. Except they’ll request a book refund from you for not taking them on a worthy voyage.

Take action:

    1. Use the High Stakes Formula to position your hero’s story goal against your villain’s story goal.

That’s it for this Saturday, one creative writing tip to help you build a story that connects with audiences.

If you found value in this post, would you consider sharing it? Maybe you’ll be helping someone create the story they’ve always wanted to write.

See ya next week!

— David