This past week, I had two query editing clients who struggled with the same issue – query stakes. I tried and tried to explain stakes the best I could in the margin notes and in my emails but even by the third round of edits, neither client had even attempted to write in the stakes. This is despite my insistence that stakes are CRUCIAL to a good query that will grab agents’ attention. I tried to look up some great articles to bolster my position but was shocked to see there weren’t many at all. Thus, I was inspired to write today’s post.
If you’ll stick with me, I’ve reached out to a literary agent I met at a conference and she has graciously agreed to provide us all with some free advice on stakes and why they are so important. But first, allow me to explain what the hell they are and how to implement them into your query.
What are stakes?
Quite simply put, stakes tell the agent what is “at stake” for your protagonist in this story if he/she fails to win/save the day/overcome the conflict. It tells the agent why their journey matters and why we should be invested in reading the book to find out if they do, in fact, overcome the conflict. It’s one brief sentence that lays all this out clearly and concisely.
Where do stakes go?
Typically, I like to see authors put the stakes sentence at the end of the synopsis paragraphs. Whether you’ve written two or three summary paragraphs that tell the agent about your protagonist, the conflict, and how they must overcome, the best place to stick the stakes is that very last sentence (in my humble opinion) just before you close out and move on to comp titles.
How do you write stakes?
Believe it or not, it’s not that difficult. There’s even a formula for it. Start by writing a simple sentence structured like this: “If MC doesn’t X, then Y will happen.” Tell the agent what exactly (not in a vague sense) will happen to your protagonist should they fail at their mission, not save the girl, not slay the beast, not overcome their inner emotional turmoil. Will her sidekick die? Will the bad guy use the secret weapon to destroy earth? Will the protag miss out on the chance at true happiness with her suitor? Tell me exactly what will happen if the protag does not win/succeed/overcome.
What are some examples of stakes?’
Below are some examples of stakes that were nailed perfectly. One is one of my own (toots horn). The other two are from queries of clients who went from no stakes at all to hitting the bullseye by the third round of edits.
See how the author tells us that if Lottie doesn't sort out her feeling, she just might miss out on true happiness? This is a great way to show stakes in a romance novel where the conflict is sometimes internal.
Here I show specifically how Mena has to come to terms with her demons and deal with them or else the monster will get away with his crimes.
So if there’s any doubt about how important stakes are for your query letter, this post should put those to bed for good. Stakes ARE important to a successful query. But don’t take my word for it. I promised you some input directly from an agent. Here it is:
“Showing what's at stake for your protagonist in a query is important because stakes add layering and tension and make your character relatable or sympathetic. If your query shows your character has nothing to lose, it can give the impression of lack of tension and an underdeveloped character. Agents always want to know what's at stake. Relate it to your own life. If some unforeseen event occurs in your day--a catastrophic event, or even a simple one--what do you stand to lose if you can't get past it emotionally, physically, or spiritually? What have you lost as the result of something that has occurred in your own life? When you apply stakes to your query, it helps us identify with your character and want to go on the journey with them."
Elizabeth Kracht (Literary Agent, Kimberly Cameron & Associates)
What’s the takeaway? The takeaway is that while there’s all sorts of confusing and conflicting information out there for authors when it comes to query advice, this is one thing that I think most “experts” would agree on – that stakes in your query are ESSENTIAL to writing a killer query that will snag an agent’s attention, tell them why they MUST read your manuscript, and convince them to ask for it. And when experienced editors or people with inside industry knowledge tell you this is really important…listen to them. Those authors didn’t want to listen to me for whatever reason about the stakes but that was their choice. I’ve got a knowledgeable, reputable agent backing me up here, so you know when I say you need stakes, I mean…you need stakes!
If any of you are seeking additional help or advice as you bang your head against the keyboard trying to pound out the perfect query, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I offer three rounds of query (and/or synopsis) editing for only $30 (at time of press) and low, affordable rates for sample pages, too. And don’t forget, I also offer fast turnaround times, affordable rates, and payment plans for all full-novel editing services and check my social media pages for sales whenever they come around.