Today I'm going to talk about something that's important both for writing and for selling your work: STAKES!
No, not the kind you slay vampires with. (Well, maybe.) I mean what your character stands to lose. What bad stuff is going to happen if the plot doesn't go their way. What's at stake in your story? Why does the reader need to care?
If you remember Conflict 101, you may recall me saying that the basis of all conflict is a character wanting something. All stories are born from characters wanting something--money, love, respect, the enchanted medallion, self-actualization. However, a really engaging story will have an extra dimension to that conflict. Something must be at stake.
That something can be hard to define. What tripped me up for the longest time, and kept frustrating me when I tried to write queries, is that stakes aren't just the lack of achieving goals. In the book which finally snagged me an agent, the primary conflict of the book is that the main character, a young beggar named Jinwa, is trying to find his twin brother who's been kidnapped. What does Jinwa want? Easy, he wants to find his brother. What will happen if he doesn't get it? Well... duh... he doesn't find his brother. Those are the stakes, right?
Wrong! Before I was able to get an agent's attention, I had to explain what Jinwa had to lose. He's already homeless and missing his brother, so what's the worst that could happen? In his case, it's the risk of losing his freedom, too; he's in danger of being kidnapped by the same criminal organization that has his brother. Then he goes and falls in love, gets stuck in the spirit world, fights like hell for his own self-worth... the point is, Jinwa's actually got a lot to lose. Things can get much worse for him if he botches the brother rescue. That is what I had to convey in my pitch to get people to care.
In other words, if Sally's goal in a story is winning a million dollars, the stakes are not not winning a million dollars. The stakes are her dog's kidney dialysis, which she won't be able to afford if she doesn't get the money.
Stakes can be as big as life and death. They can also be small and oblique. Let's look at examples from a couple of excellent YA novels you may have read (and which you really should if you haven't yet!):
In The Hunger Games, the stakes are sky high. That's what makes the book such a page turner. Katniss is almost constantly in situations where she could very well die if she fails. When she's not in those situations, she's fearing for her family, friends, and neighbors. When things go wrong for Katniss, the results are without fail catastrophic.
In Cracked Up To Be by Courtney Summers, the stakes are more mysterious. Right at the beginning, we learn that Parker is at risk of flunking her senior year of high school. That's obviously something she stands to lose, but it's not the main reason we keep reading. Parker is intentionally skipping class, getting in trouble, and letting her grades slide, and nobody knows why--including the reader. Parker hints at it being something gravely serious. We don't know why Parker is sabatoging her own life, but we know there's got to be a good reason. In this case, we don't know what the true stakes are, and we're reading on to find out! (In this kind of story, an agent most likely wants to know up front what the real deal is, but of course I won't spoil it here.)
So try evaluating your story from both the angles: conflict and stakes. Whether it's to help you figure out where your story is headed, or to help you describe it to an agent or publisher, it's valuable information to know!