So as many of you know, I do some query editing/critiquing on the side. Let me get this out of the way first – I do not hold myself out as an expert in stakes. I’m not an agent, editor, or publisher. I’m just an author who’s figured out what it takes to snag an agent and get published. That’s all. But mostly, I just really enjoy helping my fellow authors write the best query they can possibly write and represent their novel as well as possible so they, too, can snag an agent and see all their dreams come true.
With that out of the way, I want to talk today about something I see in almost every single query submission I receive. MISSING STAKES. This is a major, big time no-no. You must have stakes to properly finish up your query and tie it up in a pretty pink bow. Agents need to know what is at stake for your main character in your novel. Sometimes it’s not so clear cut, but trust me, every book has stakes, whether internal or external. Even historical fiction, women’s fiction, young adult…each main character has something at stake, and if not, then you may want to rethink your plot.
When I try to help clients establish stakes, I tried turning to the internet to send them some links to great articles about writing stakes, but to my surprise, there were very few, so I thought I’d write this in hopes that someone can benefit from the research I’ve done over the years and avoid making the worst mistake possible in query writing – leaving out the stakes.
To begin, let’s start with the biggest question – what are stakes?
Stakes tell us what is in jeopardy of being lost in your novel if the main character fails in the conflict of the plot. For example, in a thriller novel, if the MC doesn’t find the killer and stop him, someone will most likely lose their life (external stakes). Those stakes are very clear and it’s easy to discern what might happen if the MC fails. In other genres (YA, women’s fiction, historical) it might not be so cut and dry. There’s not always a bad guy out there on the loose killing people who needs to be stopped in order to save lives. So what do you do then?
Then you turn to internal stakes. Is your heroine going to lose the love of her life? Lose her sanity? Choose the wrong man? Lose their best friend? Lost their grip on reality? A properly written novel will ALWAYS have stakes of some kind. You just have to look hard and figure out what is in jeopardy for your MC. Once you’ve established what that may be, you need to next figure out how to write the stakes into your query.
First, the stakes almost always comes as the last sentence of the last paragraph of the synopsis portion of your query. So make sure you’re placing it in the right spot. If done properly, your stakes should be the final sentence that grabs the agent’s attention and makes them think, “Oh, my! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” And then, of course, they will want to request a sample, or even your entire manuscript, to see what happens. Because you have properly snagged their attention and intrigued them the point they have no choice but to want more.
How do we write stakes properly? It’s really not that difficult. People often overthink the issue. There’s even a formula. It goes like this: “If MC doesn’t X, then Y will happen.” Okay, maybe I’m oversimplifying, but I don’t think so. If you can properly communicate what is going to happen if your MC doesn’t succeed or make the right choice, or if the bad guy wins, then you’re golden. If you’ve written your stakes properly, the reader should be able to say, “Oh, now I see why it’s so important for her to…”
Here are some examples of stakes I’ve used in some of my successful queries (which either landed several full requests or an agent or publishing deal):
From “Hell for Certain,” a psychological thriller:
To save her brother, Daisy must use every resource and skill at her disposal…even if it means risking her own career and everything she holds dear. Long-buried family secrets will put her life in danger as she attempts to find Laurel’s real killer.
From “Hindsight,” a domestic suspense novel:
But when Julia learns the truth during her subsequent investigation, she faces a difficult decision. No matter which choice she makes, she could lose her career, her sanity, and worst of all, her family.
From “Magnolia,” women’s fiction:
The truth of her father’s past will leave Maggie questioning her own identity. She must learn to embrace her family’s history, or she may never be able to silence the demons that have haunted her for over twenty years.
From “Without Hesitation,” historical fiction:
If she makes the wrong choice, both she and her baby Julia will pay with their lives when the angry senators finally come for Caligula.
I’m not claiming these are the absolute BEST stakes sentences ever, but they at least follow the formula. See how I told the agent what choice the main character had to face and what might happen if she makes the wrong one? Or if she fails in her investigation?
Take your time and think hard about your main character, what drives him/her, what challenge/conflict they face, and what might happen to them or those around them if they make the wrong choice or do the wrong thing or fail in the struggle.
I hope this helps those of you who are struggling with this very difficult but very important part of the query letter. Please keep in mind that I am always here to help. If you’re interested in my query services, please visit my website (see below) and reach out to me anytime. If you just have a simple question, I’m always here to help the best I can. Again, you can contact me via my website or you can reach out to me on social media. My handles are listed below, as well.
With love, as always,
Christina (Christy) Morgan
PS – Don’t forget to check out my novels, available on Amazon or through my website. But for easy access, the purchase links are listed below: