Here’s the Beef on Stakes

Poker_Table“What’s at stake here?”

Sooner or later every fiction writer fields this question. Often the challenge appears as a single word – STAKES? – scrawled on a novel chapter or short story draft, plus or minus a coffee cup ring, or the remnant of someone’s bean and cheese burrito.

As readers, once we’ve engaged with characters in a story (sympathy), what impels us to hope for the best and fear for the worst? Will Bill the carpenter live or die after his circular saw accident? Will Ingrid the surgeon keep her marriage intact, or get a divorce? If the author is doing his or her job right, this two-edged anxiety will cause us to turn pages late into the night.

What follows is a catalog, by no means exhaustive, of fictional stakes, and examples of authors who have used those stakes to good effect.

Life vs. Death

The big one, obviously. In Susan Minot’s 1998 novel, Evening, protagonist Ann Grant’s impending death from cancer forces her to take stock of her life, with a focus on the weekend she fell in love at a friend’s wedding in Newport forty years prior. Even though the reader senses that Ann’s cancer is irreversible, the illness adds emotional urgency to her reminiscences, and sets a time limit on her conversations with family members and friends. Ann circles back to those encounters in Newport over and over, each return gaining in intensity as death approaches.

In Michael Chabon’s 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, the threat of death lingers off-stage, as the Holocaust menaces recent immigrant Joe Kavalier’s relatives in Europe during World War II. Part of what drives our interest in the emerging relationship between Joe and his cousin, native New Yorker Sammy Clay, is the understanding that Joe may end up being the only member of his extended family to survive the war. We hope that Joe will be reunited with his European relatives, but fear that he won’t. In this case death builds our interest in Joe by making his life in America seem more precious.

Freedom vs. Captivity

For the central characters in Bret Anthony Johnston’s 2014 novel Remember me like This, the kidnapping four years prior of a teenage boy, Justin Campbell, front-loads stakes during the book’s opening chapters and propels the narrative once Justin escapes. Even after the Campbell family is reunited, the theme of captivity persists, as Justin’s parents, Eric and Laura, are trapped psychologically by the aftermath of Justin’s multi-year kidnapping. As readers we are simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the details of Justin’s captivity, and by his parents’ coping mechanisms. Johnston’s use of captivity as a fictional consequence feels as powerful as death, once we have explored the Campbell family’s thoughts and feelings so intensely.

Marriage vs. Divorce

As readers of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, we are rooting simultaneously for Jane to find a happy marriage, and for her to transcend a humble position in society on her own terms. The brilliance of Bronte’s use of fictional stakes in Jane Eyre is that she describes the trade-offs of married versus single life among Victorians—divorce is not really an option —with equal clarity, suspending us on a knife-edge. As in Johnston’s Remember Me Like This, we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by Jane’s impending marriage to Rochester.

Companionship vs. Loneliness

Departing from literal life-and-death situations, companionship and loneliness are surprisingly powerful stakes in fiction. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, published exactly 30 years after Jane Eyre, includes every conceivable consequence, most notably Anna’s “death-by-train” at the end, but one of the most compelling is Levin’s resignation to living a solitary life following his rejection by Kitty Scherbatsky. When Levin returns to his country estate, picks up a scythe, and cuts grass alongside his serfs, we feel his sense of purpose in reconnecting with the land, and with Russia. We also expect that any reconciliation with Kitty will take time, as Levin nurses his emotional wounds privately. In this way, Tolstoy has raised stakes for Levin by providing a credible alternative to a life with Kitty.

Realized vs. Unrealized Potential

This fictional consequence pervades Young Adult fiction. One Boston-area YA author, Diana Renn, uses this theme to good effect in her 2014 release, Latitude Zero. Protagonist Tessa wants to live by a moral code, but a relationship with Jake, her dubious cyclist boyfriend, exposes her to murder and corruption, and strains relationships with female friends. What we want, as readers, is for Tessa to fulfill her potential as a journalist and humanitarian. What’s at stake, in addition to Tessa’s physical safety, is the course of her adult life. We want her inherent goodness to win over expedient lapses in teen judgment. The extent to which Renn describes these forces in opposition raises stakes, and increases our involvement in the narrative.

The next time your attention tapers while reading a novel or short story, you might ask, “What’s at stake here?” The answer may surprise you!


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