In this week’s video, Alida defines stakes and tension. She explains how they work together to affect both your character and your reader.
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Going Up? Stakes & Tension
We writers talk a lot about rising stakes and tension. But what are they? Are they the same thing? Or two sides of the same coin, maybe? But isn’t that like saying they’re the same thing? Do we need both stakes and tension?
Humph. Now I’m confused.
Not really. In fact, I’m going to explain the difference between Stakes & Tension and how they function in your story in just a second.
Hi, I’m Alida, your writing coach at Word Essential.
In today’s 60 Second Writing Tip, we’re going to get straight on stakes and tension.
I’m sure you’ve heard the words “rising stakes” and “rising tension” hundreds or thousands of times.
Everybody knows they need to rise. But what the heck are they? If you aren’t sure what they are, you probably think they’re synonyms. Not quite.
They’re more like siblings than synonyms. Holding hands on the journey that is your story. If you’re doing it right, they’ll keep pace with each other, climbing the hill to your climax.
The difference between stakes and tension is the difference between who is affected.
Stakes affect your character.
Tension affects your reader.
Stakes refers to consequences.
Tension refers to a mild kind of anxiety that is desirable while reading an engaging story.
When our siblings stay in step with each other, the readers tension rises as the stakes rise for the character.
When they get out of step with each other, the stakes may go up for the character, but the reader just doesn’t care.
If your reader doesn’t really care what happens to your character, you’ve got a big problem. The kind of problem in which your reader sets your book aside and forgets about it—and you.
This will make more sense with an illustration.
In Dark Corners in Skoghall, Jess’s dog, Shakti, goes missing. What are the stakes here?
–the dog could get lost or hit by a car and never return.
If you ranked the tension you feel on a scale of 1 – 10, where would you put it?
–the more you empathize with Jess and the more severe you gauge her situation, the higher you’ll rank your tension.
–let’s say this is a 3. Maybe a 4 or 5 if you’ve lost a dog.
Shakti ran off at the beginning of the book. She’s an adolescent and roaming is normal at this age.
–what just happened to your tension level?
It dropped a point or two. Shakti will come back., so now the stakes and tension are between a 1 & 3.
Jess is panicked. You know Shakti is probably fine, but she can’t find Shakti. And she’s had this creepy guy stalk her, and he ran her and Shakti off the road earlier in the book.
–the stakes are higher when we account for the full context of the situation. Now the stakes might be a 5.
–your tension level just went up, as well, because Shakti isn’t coming out of the woods and Jess’s panic is increasing. Also, you know the context—there’s a creepy dude who caused trouble for them before. So your tension is at least a 5.
Because you’re a smart reader and you see we’re nearing the end of the book, you know we’re coming up on the big finish, the climax.
–the stakes remain a 6, but the tension just went up to an 8, because we know the shape of stories and this is the build up to the climax.
Jess can’t get hold of Investigator Martinez or Beckett. She’s in this alone.
The stakes are a 7 now. We’re really worried about Shakti and nobody is coming to help her anytime soon.
–The tension is creeping up. Though a knowledgeable reader won’t be surprised that Jess can’t call in the cavalry, even she can’t help but feel a tad more anxious.
Jess receives a text message from an unknown number. It’s a photo of Shakti lying on her side, whether sleeping, unconscious, or dead, there’s no way to tell from the image.
–The stakes for Jess just shot up to a 9. There is no question now whether Shakti is missing or in the hands of the villain. And she’s in the hands of the villain and being used as bait. Jess not only has to save Shakti, but avoid taking Shakti’s place as the bad guy’s captive.
–And your tension level? That mild anxiety that we actually enjoy as part of the ride?
If I’ve done it well, the reader is sitting up, eyes wide, reading hard to see this scene resolve.
Note that I only took this up to a 9. That’s because I need the 10, the top of the scale, for the actual climax, when Jess is the one in trouble.
Let’s review: Stakes are the consequences your character faces in a given situation.
Situation: Shakti goes missing.
Stakes: She could have run away, gotten run over, or she could have been dognapped.
Tension is what the reader feels as a result of empathizing with your character and as a result of her awareness of the big picture within the story.
Tension: Shakti goes missing—not a big source of tension on it’s own.
But she’s not coming out of the woods—some tension is here
Jess is panicking—remember our empathy for the pov character?—we’re getting worried with her.
Jess can’t reach help—since we know there’s a creepy dude after her, we’re feeling significant tension. Also we see it’s the end of the book and that increases our tension by adding anticipation of the climax to the mix.
Jess gets a texted image of her unconscious dog—our tension is almost peaked, because the danger is now defined and certain.
I hope that helps you understand the difference between stakes and tension and how they function in a story.
Let’s distill that down into our Word Essential 60 Second Writing Tip.
Stakes and tension are like siblings, holding hands as they move through your story, hiking up the plot arc toward the climax.
Ideally, they stay in step with each other, and as the stakes rise, so does the tension.
When they’re out of step, you might be raising the stakes, but the reader doesn’t care.
Stakes are simply the consequences the character faces in any given situation.
Tension is the mild, enjoyable anxiety the reader feels by empathizing with that character as the stakes rise.
If you’re stakes aren’t rising, you have a problem with plotting and need to look at the situations and consequences your character faces.
If the stakes are rising, but the tension isn’t, you need to look at your character, and make him more empathetic to the reader.
That’s today’s 60 Second Writing Tip. Please share this video with your friends and have a great writing day!
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