What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

This is Emma Coats’ Writing Basic #16 – four sentences fiction writers address when building a story. As I look at these ideas, What are the stakes? slowly emerged as the essence of this post. For me it means: Just what is my hero afraid to lose? Regarding my personal life, I’m asking: What am I afraid to lose?

Our fear of loss invites others to take charge of our lives. To protect ourselves, we build strong defenses, leaving nothing in jeopardy; or we strip ourselves of having to defend anything, leaving nothing to lose.

NOTHING IN JEOPARDY is an overpowering adversary but NOTHING TO LOSE always wins. We live somewhere between these two extremes.

The warrior who fears nothing, even death, loses nothing when his life is taken. You don’t want to face her on the battlefield.

Fearless warriors usually reveal themselves when battling illness. My wife, a nurse, has met many in the hospitals where she worked. What made them warriors? They all acknowledged the limited state of life they had left. Some resigned moments before coma closed their eyes. Some found piece weeks before their passing. And some realized life could flicker away tomorrow and cherished each day years before they passed.

My wife’s mother is one of those far-seeing warriors. She is 98 years-old and sleeps in a two-hundred square foot nursing home room. She is 80% blind, 80% deaf, 80% wheelchair dependent and 100% happy. She also has 100% mental acuity.

Five years ago, when moving into assisted living, she gave up attachment to independence. Then three years ago she told us “she was ready.” Nothing more needed to be fixed. Nothing was so important it couldn’t be left behind. When this post is published August 7th my wife will be flying to Germany to spend another visit with her mom, knowing it could be her last. That “last visit” has been reoccurring for ten years.


I just returned from a visit with my own parents, also in their nineties. My father is deep in senility and Mom hurts from extreme bodily pain. With all their handicaps, my parents are still not ready to close the store. Mom told me she awakes every morning wondering if it will be her last. Dying bothers her – a lot. Her husband, my dad, became her child. Who will take care of him when she’s gone? Mom’s task keeps her alive.

My sister and I will not be able to care for Dad if Mom leaves first. He will go into a home. Mom says he will then decide life is not worth living and quickly fade into an abyss of depression and angry regrets. Dad will not be a courageous warrior. He never was.

I know little about my mother’s fear of death. It’s uncomfortable talking to her about that. Still, I know she is a warrior, and so are four of her younger friends battling cancer. They’re not thinking about their own annihilation. Like Mom, they’re concerned about the people who love them and will mourn their loss.

This is heavy stuff. And I’m glad most of the time I’m wrapped with distractions of superficial drama like who’s right in an argument. How trivial, but it seems important until life is on the line. Life is always on the line, but who wants to think about that? Writers have to think about that.


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How about thinking this. I’m sure you already have. The only power people have over you and me is their ability to take away something we consider precious.

Your boss can press you to the floor as long as you’re afraid he’ll take your job. Your spouse can lie, cheat and steal as long as you want her more than she wants you. Children of course make things immensely more complicated but the issue stays the same: Something very important to you is on the line and you’re afraid to lose it. So much so, you give up control. You’re not alone. Millions of books tell this story.

Let’s look at another story – war. If you and your enemy agree on what’s at stake, like land, dominance, oil reserves, human life, freedom; you’ve got a balanced fight. All players invest the same in the game. All agree when too much of “X” is lost on either side, the war is over.

This is an archetypal conflict and most traditional novels describe it. But we rarely have those wars anymore. We have wars of ideology where the players can’t even agree on what they’re fighting about. Throw suicide bombers into the mix and you’ve got an unworkable clash. When one side is willing to die and the other side wants to live, human life is no longer the cash bet on the table. Back in the day when the generals ran out of fighters, the war was over. Not anymore.

When suicide bombers line up to blow themselves up, fear of dying has left the equation. Solution? Want-to-die fighters no longer confront Want-to-live soldiers. Instead they face airborne drones where their pilots, flying from air conditioned cubicles, go home for dinner. One fighter cares not if he dies. The other knows he won’t die, at least on the battlefield.

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Balance is back. What’s all the fuss about? Oh… Innocent people perish? Well there’s that…

There’s one thing I want to make clear. From what I’ve heard suicide bombers actually do care about their lives, but not in physical terms. They expect to trade flesh for ethereal existence. Total annihilation is not their intention, and that applies to drone pilots as well. All soldiers value their identities in one form or another. So it seems to me one’s sense-of-self is the last treasure left to lose and the first thing we fight for. Armies and religions switch sense-of-self from the personal to group-think. When they’re successful, we have nasty wars.


So writers, I ask you, when composing your story, what is on the line? What are the stakes? What is so precious it must never be given up or lost? Is it sense-of-self? Is it control, power, money, sex, loyalty, land, life or love? Whatever it is, the closer we emulate human instincts, like protecting our children, identities and freedom, the more we will engage our readers with intrinsic connections.

Sadly, loss of life no longer commands interest in fiction or on the news. Principles about life are more important than human life itself. Why? Because people are everywhere and replaceable, where as guns and drugs are not. So we fight over scarcity like food, healthcare, shelter and control.

As writers, what do we make of this? Are we watching and reporting our human conflicts? Are we pondering life and death, good and evil and making heroes that give readers reasons for hope? Are we showing the world what’s worth defending?

For me, there’s still plenty to lose. And although much is dwindling and I’d like to hoard it, I know survival is all about sharing. If I don’t and I’m fighting to keep what’s left, NOTHING TO LOSE always wins.


Originally published by Curiosityquills.com




  1. Jerry's Cousin says:

    WOW! This is heavy stuff, Irv. So much of what I think of at times and never talk about. It’s a subject most people don’t want to think about or talk about. In my line of work, nursing, I see those older people that you mention and I help where I can. I’m one of those few people that didn’t watch my parents die slowly. Both my mom and dad died quickly. However, I did care for two brothers, at different times, that died slowly of cancer. I believe I had God beside me to get through my brothers’ passing. Our minds are good to us, it lets us forget the bad and remember the good memories.
    I’m going back to my home in PA, next week. That’s always fun! And I’ll make a point to make some good memories!
    Thanks, Irv.

    1. Irving H. Podolsky says:

      You’re a good Soul, J.C. and I suspected that you would be a nurse. Nurses are special. We don’t have enough of them, and we don’t respect them enough. Yes…make every day special. We don’t have enough of those, either.


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