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Before I go into why that is, let’s take a quick look at dictionary.com's definition of stakes:
My favorite part of this definition is “in danger of being lost” because it basically sums up the most important part of the definition.
When people say that we need to know the stakes in a pitch, they’re really saying we need to know what your protagonist has to lose. We need to know what will happen if your protagonist fails to reach his or her goal.
Why is this so important? The answer is simple: without established stakes, the readers have no reason to care if your protagonist fails or accomplishes his goal. The tension disappears, the conflict doesn’t matter because if your protagonist loses, oh well. Not like anything bad happens.
In other words: boring. Take any story and remove the stakes and the plot will fall apart. For example:
Without the fate of Middle Earth in Frodo’s hands, The Lord of the Rings would just be a really long trilogy about people trying to vacation in Mordor.
Without Prim’s life on the line, there’s no reason for Katniss to volunteer to take her place as tribute, because she’d be back in a couple weeks anyway. No biggie.
I suspect a large part of the reason writers sometimes forget to mention the stakes in their pitch is because they’re so close to their work. The writer knows what will happen if their protagonist fails and sometimes it seems obvious to them even in their stake-less pitch what that failure means--but to the outside reader who doesn’t know the story so well (or at all, for that matter), they need the stakes spelled out to them.
So next time you’re writing up or revising a query pitch (or any pitch, for that matter), take a good look at what you have and make sure you can identify the stakes from the words in front of you. It’s importance cannot be overstressed.
Can you identify the stakes from your latest pitch or back cover copy?