Character Development / General / Writing

Make it Life or Death: The 3 Types of Stakes in a Novel

Everything comes down to life and death.

A good book comes down to a handful of things, but if your stakes aren’t right for your novel, if they aren’t BIG enough, then it won’t matter that your characters are beautiful perfection. You’ve lost a reader.

So we turn to death to make sure that they’re big enough, profound enough, earth-shattering and heartbreaking enough to keep the reader interested. Luckily for us, there are only 3 types we have to keep track of.

  • Physical
  • Professional
  • Psychological


Ok, I know this is pretty obvious, but hang in here with me. This is the risk of physically dying and can be the highest stakes possible. Put your MC’s life at risk and watch what happens.

Have them trapped in a burning building. Have someone shoot at them. Put them in a grimy back alley deal. Make them slip and fall and struggle to get help. You could look up a medical list of ways to die and work your way down it for all I care, but if your stakes are physical death then try writing a variety of scenes with different tensions. Hell, you could sit and watch a marathon of 1001 ways to die and toss a few together to see what you come up with.


Professional death? You mean where he’s knocked off by a professional??

No, my lovelies. I’m talking about when the job means so much to someone that they feel like if they don’t succeed, don’t give it 100% and win, there’s no point to continuing.

Whatever their calling is is the most important thing in their life. If they fail at the job then that makes them failures. It makes them worthless.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch says it best.

Everybody counts or nobody counts. That’s it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it’s a prostitute or the mayor’s wife.

Turn up the tension. If you’ve got a character like this then the best way to get some attention is to put up a roadblock right in the middle of your character’s path. They’re a doctor? Then toss them a case no one can figure out, add in some office politics, toss lightly with drama that drives home the theme and wham! You got a good story.


Ok, if you haven’t really taken in a single thing I’ve said SHUT UP SIT DOWN AND LISTEN TO ME RIGHT THE FUCK NOW!

Psychological death elevates the emotions of a story like nothing else. You want your readers to get that delicious burn in their chest? This is it. Why? Because this is when the character dies on the inside.

This is when they break.

If you use this correctly, then you’ve used the first half of the story to build up your character. They’re strong. They’re determined. They’re so close to a win. Maybe they even believe they’ve ALREADY won. And then, it happens.

Build to a false victory. Get close to a victory. Have it happen during the eye of the storm. Have it be an accident. Have them choose to be broken to protect someone else.

The more strands you weave together, the more powerful your story will be. If you choose to use two or three, then please remember to build up to them. I promise, it’s probably going to take longer than you think.

So whatever your instant guesstimate is, 80/150/300 pages, double it and intersperse it through the rest of your story. If you don’t give the audience enough time to really love them, then your stakes are going to fall flat. And you’re going to be stuck asking yourself ‘why oh why don’t they just get it?’

When you get your first draft done, run it by a couple of readers. Ask them how you could make them care more about the MC. In the end, the stakes are just a way to connect with your readers.

Keep writing, Lovelies


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