Why Your Story Choices Come with High Stakes

by | Jul 5, 2015

My first story coach offered me a refund.

Full or partial. Whatever I needed to feel whole.


My eligibility was explained in an email. 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.”


All I wanted was a high five of validation. What I got was a dose of reality. My storyline moved without focus. My characters lacked purpose.

My novel was a hopeless opus.

This revelation fractured my dream which was to publish a worthy novel. One that entertained. Inspired. Connected with people.

All my story inspired so far was a new refund policy. This factor pressed me to consider two options:

  • Pack it up because this whole writing thing was just too hard.
  • Acknowledge my deficiencies and keep grinding.

If I quit, I would never fulfill my purpose. But continuing meant there was a crap load of work left to be done. I would have to work longer. Harder. Smarter.


Our craft isn’t easy. It’s often a pain in the azz. But giving up would be too costly. We’d feel empty if we quit. As though we gave up on what we were meant to do.

So we grind on until we create something we’re proud to share. Because the finish line offers a dream come true.

Those are high stakes, storyteller.

Your story must deliver a similar blend of stakes.

Because today’s readers demand overwhelming reasons to stay interested. Readers are always asking themselves why they should care about your story. A weak plot propels them to check out. Or check Facebook.

So your story choices are more important than ever. You must challenge your audience to care (for hundreds of pages). And that means you better nail the last branch in the Story Heart series.


  • The reason your Protagonist has a Story Goal

    • i.e. Life or Death, Freedom or Imprisonment, Love or Loneliness, etc.

Stakes are the possible outcomes directly tied to your Protagonist’s Story Goal.

The beat sheet I submitted to my story coach did not have clearly defined stakes. It truly was a hopeless opus.

Actually, that story coach sent me a follow up email a few hours later with encouraging words. Maybe they felt bad. Either way, I responded that I never once considered a refund.

Because I learned readers wouldn’t care because my stakes were unclear. Or nonexistent…

So outside of saving yourself my kind of embarrassment, getting this core principle right will dramatically increase your chances of keeping readers engaged.

Use this easy formula to make sure your Stakes are properly staged:

  • STAKES FORMULA: If (Protagonist) does not achieve (Story Goal), (Negative Outcome) will occur.

Let’s look at six examples from Bestselling novels:

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

  • Stakes Formula: If (Thomas) does not (Escape the Maze), (everyone trapped inside will die).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • Stakes Formula: If (Nick Dunne) does not (Prove his innocence), (Amy Dunn will remain free while Nick goes to prison).

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

  • Stakes Formula: If (Frodo Baggins) does not (Destroy the Ring), (Sauron will use its power to enslave Middle Earth).

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

  • Stakes Formula: If (August) does not (Survive the school year), (discrimination’s ugly face will conquer the real beauty in life).

Killing Floor by Lee Child

  • Stakes Formula: If (Jack Reacher) does not (Solve his brother’s murder), (the killers will be free to complete their multi-billion dollar counterfeiting ring).

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

  • Stakes Formula: If (Ender Wiggins) does not (Defeat the buggers), (they will terminate the human race).

The Stakes Formula pushes you to focus your Story Goal and insure the possible ramifications have been fleshed out. It also reinforces the reason your audience should continue to turn the page and root for your Protagonist.

If you don’t clearly communicate that reason, readers may feel like my first story coach. Except they’ll desire a refund from you for not taking them on a worthy voyage.

What ramifications will your Protagonist experience if they don’t achieve the Story Goal?