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The 3 Levels of Stakes Every Great Story Needs

That’s what makes the reader care about the protagonist’s goals—because of what’s at

Instead, there are three types of stakes in play, each of which engages the reader in a

So, what are these three types, and how can you incorporate them into your own stories?

This article will explain the three levels of stakes, discuss some examples from literature, and give you

You can figure out the stakes of a story by asking this question: What’s at risk

If there’s nothing at stake in a story, the reader has no reason to care about

For example, imagine reading a story about a man whose car has broken down in the middle

How much do you care about finding out what happens next? The answer depends on what’s

On the other hand, if he’s driving to the hospital for the imminent birth of his

In the second scenario, he could potentially miss out on the moment he becomes a father

What the protagonist has to lose—in other words, the stakes of the story—makes the second

The greatest stories give the protagonist something to lose on three different levels

Public stakes, also called external stakes, are the most obvious level of stakes

It’s the direct consequence of the protagonist failing to achieve their story goals

In a sports story, it’s the risk of losing the big game, which would affect the

In a war story, it’s the risk of losing the war, which would affect the whole

For example, imagine a superhero who’s trying to stop a supervillain from detonating a bomb that

Sometimes the protagonist has something to lose that matters only to themselves, or sometimes to themselves and

Personal stakes are also known as internal stakes, emotional stakes, or relationship stakes

This level of stakes usually involves the protagonist’s internal feelings about a single person, such as

Her father’s disappointment wouldn’t affect anyone else, but it probably matters a lot to her—

Often, personal stakes can grab readers’ attention and sympathy even better than public stakes

As an example, let’s return to the story of the superhero who’s trying to stop

So far, the reader might not be very invested in whether the superhero wins, since losing only

You can create philosophical stakes by establishing two different value systems in the story and letting them

In a family drama where a daring teenager rebels against her overprotective parents, the competing values might

If the teenager ends up accepting her parents’ point of view, she could lose her belief that

In a war story between two countries with different political systems, the competing values might be democracy

Perhaps the superhero believes that human life is sacred and deserves to be protected, while the villain

Crafting three levels of stakes for every story might sound like a lot of work, but it’

That’s because each type of stake engages the reader in a different way:

When one level is missing, the story can feel overly simplistic

When these three levels work together, they create a deeply impactful story that will keep readers turning

Frankenstein tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who constructs a sentient monster, condemning it to

You might see the monster as the protagonist and Victor as the antagonist, or Victor as the

Each of these two characters has a different set of stakes since Victor and the monster are

Public stakes: The monster could lose his life since many people see him as an aberration and

Philosophical stakes: The monster risks proving society right about the idea that he’s a dangerous abomination

Pride and Prejudice is a classic English novel that critiques British society at the end of the

The protagonist is Elizabeth Bennet, whose initial relationship with Mr

Personal stakes: Elizabeth risks losing her pride by accepting Darcy’s proposal because she believes Darcy looks

1984 depicts a society ruled by Big Brother, a totalitarian regime that controls everything their citizens think, say,

The protagonist is a man named Winston Smith, who feels frustrated by the oppression of Big Brother

Public stakes: Winston risks losing his life, as well as the lives of everyone else involved in

Philosophical stakes: Winston risks losing his beliefs in individuality, love, and free thought

Instead, choose stakes that can all be achieved with the same plot goals

For example, if the main character’s primary story goal is to negotiate a treaty with aliens,

Maybe they negotiate the treaty for the public stakes, fall in love with an alien for the

Otherwise, even the most exciting stakes would get stale after a while

Perhaps the villain only threatens a single hostage at first and only later threatens the entire city

Every major plot twist should make the stakes feel even higher until everything reaches a boiling point

At the end of the story, make sure all three levels of stakes are resolved

Keep in mind that the answer doesn’t have to be the same for all three stakes

For example, Batman in The Dark Knight Rises saves Gotham and proves the Joker wrong but fails

In other stories, the protagonist wins the personal and philosophical stakes but loses the public one

Picture Rocky in Rocky, who professes love to his girlfriend and sticks to his values but loses

The important thing is to make sure the reader knows which levels were won and which ones