No Stakes, No Story.

Or, why you should start your story later than you think.

One of the most common writing questions I get is: how do I start my novel?

While I can’t tell you exactly how to start (stories are like snowflakes, no two are alike, even though they’re all the same), I can tell you when to start: start when the main character has stakes, and not a moment before.

Okay, wait. What are stakes?

A stake is a compelling reason for a character to be proactive.

This is usually something important that the character stands to lose. A woman running from the cops stands to lose her freedom. A man with a cancer diagnosis and no health insurance stands to lose his life.

Sometimes a stake can be a vast potential gain, but usually, gains are less interesting than losses. For example: A millionaire who spends $5,000 at the casino stands to gain tens of thousands of dollars. But since he doesn’t stand to lose anything important, it makes for a tepid story.

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But, change the stakes a little, and you have an exciting tale. Instead of a millionaire, let’s say we have an ambitious young entrepreneur desperate to keep his new company afloat. He has $24,000 in overdue bills and only $5,000 in the bank. In a last-ditch attempt, after being rejected for a business loan, he takes this money to the blackjack table in Las Vegas. He either wins big or walks away in personal and professional ruin. It’s do or die.

(This is the real life story of FedEx founder Fred Smith, by the way. His Wikipedia page is worth reading. And yes, he made it.)

Today’s Writing Tip: Start your story when the main character has stakes. This is often when the main character’s motivations drive the plot. Stakes pull the reader into the story and makes them invested in the outcome. A narrative without stakes feels boring and flat.

The Perfect Place To Start

Take the best-selling YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games for example.

Suzanne Collins starts the narrative on the day of “the reaping”, the annual event when children are selected for the dystopian government’s death games. During “the reaping”, the protagonist’s sister Prim gets selected, which prompts the protagonist to volunteer on Prim’s behalf. This is the earliest moment Katniss, the protagonist, goes from “just another teen” to “the person making decisions that moves the plot”.

This is the perfect place to start the story.


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