September 9 – 15: “What are high stakes and why are they important?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We hear the phrase “high stakes” quite often when it comes to writing and storytelling, but what does it really mean. This week we’re joined by ITW Members DiAnn Mills, Reece Hirsch, J. H. Bográn and Joanna Davidson Politano as they define high stakes and explain why they are so important. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along. You won’t want to miss this!


Joanna Davidson Politano writes historical novels of mystery and romance, including her debut Lady Jayne Disappears. She loves tales that capture the colorful, exquisite details in ordinary lives and is eager to hear anyone’s story. She lives with her husband and their two babies in a house in the woods near Lake Michigan.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn believes every breath of life is someone’s story, so why not capture those moments and create a thrilling adventure? Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests.


Reece Hirsch is the author of five thrillers that draw upon his background as a privacy attorney. His first book, THE INSIDER, was a finalist for the 2011 Thriller Award for Best First Novel. His next three books, THE ADVERSARY, INTRUSION and SURVEILLANCE, all feature former Department of Justice cybercrimes prosecutor Chris Bruen. Reece is a partner in the San Francisco office of an international law firm and cochair of its privacy and cybersecurity practice. He is also a member of the board of directors of the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation (


J. H. Bográn is an international author of novels, short stories and scripts for television and film. He’s the son of a journalist, but ironically prefers to write fiction rather than facts. His genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. He currently divides his time as resource development manager for Habitat for Humanity Honduras, teaching classes at a local university, and writing his next project. He lives in San Pedro Sula, Honduras with his wife, three sons and a “Lucky” dog. His motto is “I never tell lies, I only write them!”


  1. High stakes are the critical points that war against the character at the end of each scene and throughout the story. They can be physical, mental, and/or spiritual while increasing the chances for the character to fail. Other issues are involved: do the stakes affect the character personally, to others who are important to him/her, or are they global in nature? The situation gets worse while the character is attempting to resolve the issues.

    Each scene I write covers four points:
    The POV character has a goal or a problem to solve.
    The POV character learns something new.
    The backstory is revealed that pertains to the scene.
    As a result of the scene, high stakes make the situation worse.

    Writers create stakes that raise the blood pressure of the character and the reader with tension, stress, and ultimately conflict.

  2. I think there’s a difference between “high” stakes and “big” stakes. The most important thing is that the reader feels how vital the objective is for the protagonist. In the movie “The Bicycle Thief” we see how the mere theft of a bicycle can cause one man’s hope of a better life to crumble. In relative terms, the theft of the bicycle is a small crime, but in the protagonist’s life the stakes are enormous.

    Often thrillers deal in very large stakes. In my books, which are centered around privacy, cybersecurity and technology, the stakes might be the deployment of computer virus that is capable of shutting down the New York City power grid (as in THE ADVERSARY), or (as in my latest, BLACK NOWHERE) an FBI agent trying to take down a hugely profitable Dark Web drug marketplace. But for the reader to feel compelled to turn the pages, I think they need to feel the urgency of the protagonist, whether it’s physical fear or the driving need to stop the antagonist and avert harm to others.

    And if you can operate on a big stage with large stakes AND create a very personal story where we understand and feel viscerally what is propelling the main character, then I think you have a recipe for a killer thriller.

  3. Stakes drive your hero–and your reader–through the story, and they should make every event, every piece of dialogue, matter. DiAnn covered the topic beautifully above, so I’ll just add one thing–the importance of character. Just as a story hinges on its stakes, the stakes (often) hinge on the character, and how well he or she is fleshed out.

    To me, having very personal stakes, small scale or global, are gold in thrillers. It’s the difference between watching details of a car crash on the news and getting a call from your sister to tell you she was in an accident. Even if the stakes are global and not directly impacting the hero, they can still tap into his biggest fears or weak spots–his deep wounds or his secret desires. Afraid of heights? Maybe he has to climb a high building to defuse a bomb. He may not know anyone in the building, but what you know about the character makes the stakes even more interesting and important.

    Making the stakes personal is like the idea of a stilletto heel causing more damage stepping on something than the foot of an elephant. Make it pointedly personal to your hero, and it’ll hurt. Readers will feel it. And they will be drawn to both the character and the tension of the story–no matter how big the stakes are on a global scale.

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