We have to write our characters so well that when the stakes are revealed/understood/hinted at, the reader cares. And cares enough to keep reading. Ever toss a book aside because the author didn't make you care enough about the main character to keep reading once the stakes were revealed? That's usually when I would scream in jealous derision, "And why was this crap even published!? I can write better than this! Why aren't I published? Why is this stupid book published and not mine?!" Well, anyway, you get the point. People have to care about the characters.
All this is established in your set up. If you fail, you will lose your reader. You won't get published. Your manuscript will be rejected before it even has a chance to become a book that annoys a frustrated reader who checked it out of the library thinking it might be good. So that's what's at stake for us writers. Now what's at stake for our characters?
Larry Brooks at storyfix.com lists five missions for part 1:
1. A killer hook (most agree it needs to be your first sentence)
2. Introducing your hero. This is where we get to know the characters enough to care what happens to them.
3. Revealing Stakes. May be done subtly and gently in a character-driven novel, or whammo-all at once in a plot-driven novel. Either way, it boils down to this-- what have your characters got to lose?
4. Foreshadowing. Where we hint at things to come. Foreshadowing is incredible when it flows into place, annoying when it's contrived. So be careful with this one! Don't force it, let it come to you and reveal itself naturally. Once you notice what's there, you can make the most of it. Like in my hook where I talked about the baby's eyes not focusing, and one of you insightful, super-intelligent commenters said, "foreshadowing of things to come perhaps?" Yes, yes, yes! That was brilliant, and I didn't even do it on purpose!
5. Preparing to launch. Preparing for the plot points, the twists and turns, further character development and all the later elements of story structure beyond Part 1. (Not sure if I'll keep posting about structure beyond Part 1. This is exhausting. Although explaining it all in my blog does help me understand it better, so maybe I will, for purely selfish reasons.)
So back to #3 Revealing Stakes. In a plot-driven novel with life & death scenarios, an evil villain, and worlds that need saving, stakes are fairly obvious. In a character-driven novel, like what I write, it's more subtle. First my characters are revealed, (hopefully in an intriguing and fascinating way of course), and as they are, certain elements come into play.
Like, what are my characters' inner demons? Backstory? Attitudes, prejudices, fears? What defines these people? Their strengths and weaknesses? And finally, what's at stake for them? What have they got to gain or to lose as the story unfolds?
If I create believable characters worth caring about, and give them tangible stakes also worth caring about, then I'm on my way. It all has to be vital enough to keep people reading, to make my reader care. Otherwise, what's the point?