Imagine this scenario: You have written a character who has a nonfatal disease, and they're trying to find a cure. Sure, it's a nuisance, but it isn't going to kill them.
Now imagine this: Your character has a friend with a fatal disease, and you have only so long to find a cure before it's too late.
Which scenario sounds more interesting? Of course, the one with higher stakes. Why? Well, it's more interesting to root for someone when something they hold dear is threatened, isn't it? There doesn't need to be high action chases and thrilling sword fights for it to still be tense. The best part is, chase scenes and sword fights don't last, but until the conflict is resolved, the stakes do. When your characters have an imminent threat hanging over their heads, they're more inclined to do something about it instead of lazing around boring the reader.
Also, try to establish the stakes as early as you can, to set the action in motion and create tension that will fuel your story and keep your readers reading. It doesn't take death-defying cliffhangers to keep them reading, so long as there's a question or stakes that keep nagging at them, even if it's not quite clear what it is yet. For example, I read a story once that had a girl who didn't know about it, but she had supernatural powers. A few times when she got really emotional and riled up, she'd experience extreme pain and pass out. No one would really explain to her why this happened, but you could tell it wasn't a good thing, and that if it kept happening, something bad would happen.
See, too often beginnings start out slow. That's fine to do, but the story still needs something to keep the reader there, especially when some sort of training is involved. Yes, I understand your character needs to go from zero to hero before they can fight their Big Bad, but we still need at least some form of micro tension or stakes to keep the story interesting.
I was going to use my current WIP Dragons' Bane as an example of applying high stakes to a story, but I don't want to give away too much now, do I? ;) I will give you a little teaser in a minute, though, to explain what I mean.
I've been going through my plot and trying to figure out some of the tricky parts, when I realized my beginning was quite slow, boringly slow. I kept focusing on the second half of my story--all the wonderful action after the climax where everything falls apart and begins to go downhill, you know--because the first half just wasn't as interesting.
Whoa. Instant red flag if your story isn't even interesting to you, because if you're not invested in it, it's likely no one else will be.
So I started thinking about what I could do to improve the first half of my story. It's funny because my brain just sort of did a 'thing' and there was the idea, spun out in great detail on my (virtual) page, the focus of this post, actually.
Oftentimes i don't even realize why such a thing is genius until I take a step back and look at it. In this case, my 'thing' was raising the stakes. Suddenly, instead of just preparing and building up to 'the good part', the first bit had become part of the 'good part', because there's stakes.
Originally, my main female character Lena is basically in the 'training' phase I mentioned earlier, discovering and honing her new skills and getting deeper into the plot. Obviously she's not a pro in two hours, so it takes a good portion of the story going through this and developing her and the other characters she meets. But now, this situation isn't just a safe training zone, because her very life may just be on the line, and she has to make sacrifices and struggle with doubts as she does everything she can to keep herself alive.
Whoa. Now the beginning part is much more interesting. Now I actually want to go and write the beginning part instead of doing that thing where you wish the 'boring' parts would just write themselves so you can get to that 'good scene'. (Please tell me I'm not the only one who does that. ;)
In fact, now that I'm all fired up about it, I'm off to pen more of Dragons' Bane as well as continue my work on The Burden Of Wings. Hope you enjoyed this post and that it was able to help you in some way! :)