Taking Your Query From Good to Great: Part 1 – Specific Stakes

It has been an exciting week reading all your queries and pages in my Pitch Wars inbox. I saw a lot of talent and a lot of great stories. But I also some queries that didn’t live up to the awesomeness of their pages. So with that in mind, I thought I’d write  a few blog posts on pitfalls to watch out for, especially when writing a query for a book that’s more literary and quiet (since that’s what I know and that seems to be hardest.)

Today let’s talk about stakes in your query.

First, you’re going to want to open up a couple windows in your browser so you can take a look at these three different “quiet” queries that snagged an agent. I’ll be referencing them as examples.


Joy McCullough-Carranza

Rebecca Petruck

The biggest thing I saw this year was a lack of clear stakes. “Stakes” are what your character has to gain or lose from their goal in the story. Literally, “What is at stake?” And if you want me to care about your story, the stakes need to be personal to the main character and they need to be specific.

The part of your query that focuses on stakes is usually the last line or two of your query. You’ve just spent all this time telling me about characters, their desires/motivations, the inciting incident, the goal and the obstacles. Now you have to tell me what happens if your character succeeds or fails.

In my query, the line about stakes is, “But if Kate’s plan fails, it will prove Everyday Magic is just another broken promise and Kate will lose more than a hike up the Mist Trail with her dad. She’ll lose faith in things like friends, forgiveness, and most of all, family.” 

Stakes: Losing a special hike with her Dad. Also, losing faith in things that matter.

In Joy’s query:  “If Natalia doesn’t choose an activity she can do with Winnie, Hayden will swoop in and steal her away, just like she stole Natalia’s previous best friend. If Natalia seizes the chance to shine like her siblings, she may risk the best friendship she’s ever had.”

Stakes: This is set up as a choice. Either choose to hold on to a best friend or choose to stand out like her siblings.

Rebecca’s is a little different. “Wayne rattles Diggy’s easy relationship with Pop, threatens his chances at the state fair, and horns in on his girl. Diggy believes family is everything, but he’s pretty sure Wayne doesn’t count.”  

Stakes: Do you see how she put the stakes first (relationship, state fair, girlfriend) and then the conflict? (Wayne is a brother but he feels more like an enemy and that needs to be resolved.)

These stakes are all specific. Let’s take a look at phrases that AREN’T specific.

Phrases to Stay Away From

Vague stakes usually rear their ugly head in the form of cliche phrases. Beware things that sound like the following.

“or their family will fall apart.” How? How will it fall apart? Divorce? Running away? Grief? Tell me! This also goes for “or the world will end” or “Life as we know it will cease to exist” or any of those kind of phrases. Get. More. Specific.

“[Main character] will have to learn/find out…” This is soooo tempting to do. Especially in more character driven novels. But this can not be the only way your stakes come into play, with your MC learning to trust or believe or have faith, or whatever. Your MC can’t just be learning something, they have to be acting and choosing, right? Make sure you tell me that part. Your query will be stronger if you go straight to phrasing it as your character acting rather than learning.

“Or [main character] will never love/trust again.” Again, this could be true from an internal conflict perspective, but it’s not specific enough in a query. I admit, I used something like this in my query, but if you go through and read it, you’ll also realize that I’m referencing an important part of the “hook” of my book. Even so, if that had been the only thing I’d put in for stakes, it wouldn’t be enough. The big birthday trip with her dad is also at stake. You don’t have to include both internal and external stakes in your query, but you do HAVE TO include the external stakes. That’s where you get your real specificity from.

Do you see the difference between vague and specific stakes? I have lots more to write but I’ll have to do it in another blog post. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to make your stakes more specific by making them personal to the character.


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