Establishing Stakes: Lessons from Children of Blood & Bone

(Note: minor spoilers from this book’s beginning are shared)

For anyone who read my previous post about unmet desire, you might be feeling a little more confident about creating tension. Great character + unmet desire = tension. Boom!

Well… not quite. I left out two important parts of the equation: conflict and stakes (though conflict and stakes are intimately tied to one another, we’ll only be focusing on the latter today),

Here, I made a diagram:

Without stakes, you won’t build reader investment. Without stakes, your story will fizzle mid-way. Without stakes, your story will fail to answer the all-important question: so what?

When you ask what’s at stake, you want to know what the character stands to gain or lose. In certain genres— thrillers, SFF, or action-adventure— that often means life-or-death, edge-of-your-seat, world-saving stakes. With comedies, drama, or romance, the stakes are generally smaller. Note: smaller does not necessarily mean less interesting (and vice versa); many a story with the world’s fate between its pages reads as more sedative than spark plug.

Just like unmet desire, stakes should be established as early as possible. And like character desires and goals, stakes evolve over the course of the story. But remember: they must always escalate— never deescalate. Small threats progress to larger and larger problems. The danger becomes greater, closer, more personal. If one story problem is resolved, a nastier threat shoves into its place.

In Children of Blood and Bone— a YA fantasy steeped in West African mythology by Tomi Adeyemi— tension grips the reader on page one and never lets go. Adeyemi, a masterful storyteller, wastes no time introducing character, desire, conflict and stakes.

In the book’s opening scene, Zélie, the story’s MC, must defeat a rival classmate in a sparring match. As Zélie approaches her opponent, her internal dialogue serves to articulate the stakes:

The sea of brown faces parts as I move through the crowd. With each step, I focus on the way my bare feet drag against the reeds of Mama Agba’s floor, testing the friction I’ll need to win this match and finally graduate.

So Zélie stands to gain her staff and graduate from sparring class. But that’s not all. The scene’s subtext offers a different kind of stakes:

When I reach the black mat that marks the arena, Yemi is the first to bow. She waits for me to do the same, but her gaze only stokes the fire in my core. There’s no respect in her stance, no promise of a proper fight. She thinks because I’m a dîviner, I’m beneath her.

She thinks I’m going to lose.

Zélie’s is a dîviner— one of the oppressed, white-haired progeny of the now-extinct magic-wielding maji. Winning this match means earning her peer’s respect— respect she’s been denied because of her second-class status.

Note that the stakes of this opening conflict are relatively low. That’s how it should be: ever-escalating tension. Adeyemi knows this; before Zélie’s match can end, a pair of the king’s guards arrives to collect the dîviner’s tax— a tax dîviners and those who associate with them must pay. When Zélie mouths off to the guards, the stakes quickly rise:

I lift my gaze and catch the guard’s eye. A mistake. Before I can turn away or mask my disgust, he grabs me by the hair.

“Ah!” I cry out as pain lances through my skull. In an instant the guard slams me to the ground facedown, knocking the breath from my throat.

“You may not have any money.” The guard digs into my back with his knee. “But you sure have your fair share of maggots.” He grips my thigh with a rough hand. “I’ll start with this one.

It’s no longer sparring staffs and pride on the line; Zélie’s physical well-being (and possibly life) is threatened. Though the guards eventually leave without harming Zélie, a new problem is introduced at the chapter’s end: Baba, Zélie’s father, is drowning after falling overboard his fishing boat.

In this next scene, Zélie looks on as her brother, Tzain, attempts to save Baba:

Panting, Tzain dives again kicking harder this time. The seconds without him stretch into an eternity. Oh my gods

I could lose them both.

Rising stakes: now Zélie stands to lose her only remaining family. Though Tzain saves Baba, another complication immediately becomes apparent: their boat— and their only means of livelihood to pay the dîviner tax— has been lost. If they can’t pay this tax, Zélie faces dire consequences:

If I’m forced into the stocks, I’ll never get out. No one who enters escapes.

Maybe I’ll be assigned to the palace. Waiting on spoiled nobles would be preferable to coughing up coal dust in the mines of Calabrar or the other nefarious channels stockers can force dîviners into. From what I’ve heard, the underground brothels aren’t even close to the worst of what the stockers might make me do.

A quote I’ve seen kicked around twitter goes something like: “a problem your hero can walk away from is a story your reader can walk away from.”
Zélie can’t walk away from this problem; she must find a way to pay the tax, else she faces the stocks and near-certain death. As the MC’s investment deepens, so does the reader’s.

This progression never abates during Zélie’s journey. As stakes continue to escalate, story tension tightens right along with it.

I highly recommend this book, even for those who don’t typically read YA fantasy; its themes are especially relevant in today’s social-political climate. Adeyemi’s world-building and prose are beautifully rendered, and the rest of the story as carefully crafted as its beginning.

Now go read Children of Blood and Bone!

Source:

Adeyemi, Tomi. Children of Blood and Bone. Henry Holt and Company., 2018.

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