What’s at Stake?

I have a story line here. It’s about a hard-boiled detective who is investigating a crime, an interesting one. He goes about his business, ferrets out all the facts and solves the case. It’s a million-seller right?

Nobody cares. The few people who get to the end say they couldn’t get into it. What happened? The protagonist had nothing at stake.

Your character can go to exotic lands and do interesting things, but if nothing touches him, the readers might as well watch the travel channel. There, they don’t even have to do the imagining part—it’s all given to them. They are made more knowledgeable and don’t have to break a sweat.

What stories, in book form or otherwise, captivate their target audience? They are the ones where participants have something to win, and probably more important, something to lose.

In my current project, I realized one day what was on the line for my hero. Everything. If he fails, he loses it all, from the integrity of the culture around him, to his loves, to his kids, to his self-respect. Everything hangs in the balance and depends upon his success.

In your story, consider this: your protagonist must struggle. Conflict is not people arguing—it is the struggle against failure, loss, disappointment, death. It is the struggle to save a life or a love, to reach the unattainable goal.

To maintain maximum effect on the readers, your character must gain the greatest gift or suffer the greatest loss. Your readers will go through it, too. Put it all on the line and they will sing your praises.

Joe Douglas Trent


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