Writing / Editing Tips

What makes a great story? High Stakes


What makes a great story?


What drives plot forward, besides a strong, identifiable goal?

High Stakes.

Now not all high stakes are “I’m going to die, or he’s going to die.” Sometimes, they’re emotional high stakes. Romance deals significantly with emotional high stakes. But without some kind of high stakes, your story may not be as attractive to readers.

Warning: almost all of these examples include SPOILERS for the movie or book mentioned

Examples of high stakes: 

Jurassic Park: 

Well…let’s see, dinosaurs are locked in cages, the power goes out because of a hurricane. Because of the power outage, dinosaurs subsequently escape…people run for their lives…if they don’t run, they don’t survive. Yep. Classic example of high stakes.

The Hunger Games:

Having to survive by killing or being killed is another classic example of high stakes. For Katmiss, It’s not a small matter of “I can get through this.” No, it’s a matter of “If I don’t win, I will die.”

Finding Nemo

Merlin thinks his son is in imminent danger because Nemo is captured by a diver and taken off the reef, so he proceeds to search the ocean for him. Nemo, we find out, isn’t exactly in any real danger, until we discover that the dentist who captured him is planning to give him to his niece, Darla, who the other fish in the tank label a ‘fish killer’ because she unintentionally killed the last fish that was given to her.

What about emotional or personal stakes? 

(it’s hard to find examples that won’t reveal a million spoilers. Here’s a few)

A walk to remember: By Nicholas Sparks

Both the movie and the book do a great job of portraying the emotional personal stakes that the 2 lead protagonists deal with. Jamie flat out tells Landon “You have to promise not to fall in love with me,” Why?  Hopefully most of you have seen this or read it. If not, Spoiler alert!! Why would she tell him not to fall in love with her? Because she’s dying of cancer. What does he do? Of course, he falls in love with her.

Don’t let me die! By Lindsey Caldwell

In this Young adult story, we meet a young girl who is paralyzed after a terrible accident involving a jack-knifed big rig. What drives the story forward is her determination to live and to walk again. But she is her own worst enemy. She has to overcome her doubts and fears and learn to live with who she is now versus who she used to be before she became paralyzed. Contrary to the title implication, she is not dying. There is no ‘saving the world’ or  ‘survival of the fittest’, but there are still high stakes. Her friends and family root for her. Her physical therapist motivates her to keep going when she wants to give up.

What other examples of books or movies with high stakes can you think of?

Be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series:

What makes a great story: Misunderstandings:

What makes a great story: Character conflict

What makes a great story: The little things



3 Comments on “What makes a great story? High Stakes

  1. Another great post! Conflict is such an important part of stories and the higher the stakes the more compelled we are to become invested in the story. The best stories are able to interweave those larger stakes with smaller ones that are subtly interconnected.
    I recently rewatched ‘Frozen’ so it’s the example that jumps most readily to mind. If Anna can’t convince Elsa to return, Arendelle will forever be trapped in snow and ice. At the same time, the relationship between the sisters is at stake, doomed as well to be ‘frozen’ in a state of estrangement.
    Thanks for sharing the insight 🙂

  2. Love the example of Frozen. Emotional and physical high stakes!! Ah, I should’ve written stories with both of those together. Thanks Faith. Glad you enjoyed it. Trying to post more ‘writerly’ posts haha 🙂

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