The Proper Calibration of Stakes

Every story – well, nearly every story – is about characters trying to accomplish something. Depending on what kind of story it is – comedy, weepy family drama, thriller – the stakes are going to be completely different. Dude, Where’s My Car? is an appropriately low set of stakes to use to move the plot along in a stoner comedy. In a serious character piece, not so much (although now I’m thinking of it as a long form commentary on existential dread and maybe?). Every story needs the right stakes.

In sci-fi and fantasy stories are often told against big, bold backdrops – starships that travel between alien worlds or weird fantasy worlds sprawling with orcs fairies and all the rest. As a result, it can sometimes be too easy to let the stakes get too big. It’s worth remembering that as the stakes spiral out of control, it can impact the story you’re trying to tell and the reactions readers or viewers are going to have. The bigger the stakes, sometimes perversely, the lower the dramatic tension.

What is generally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies? Wrath of Khan, right?

Think about what the stakes are in that movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving Earth or the Federation. It starts out with Kirk not going gently into retirement and slides into a mano-a-mano (or shipo-a-shipo, I guess) fueled by revenge. Yes, there’s the whole Genesis device stuff, but even that isn’t the kind of universe shattering stuff the drives the plot in later movies (why is the Enterprise always the only Federation ship in the neighborhood?!). It works so well because it’s about a few people, doing desperate things.

Which makes a lot of sense, because lots of old Trek episodes were just like that. Most episodes revolved around getting one of the main trial – Kirk, Spock, & McCoy – out of trouble. Occasionally the entire Enterprise is at risk, but never (that I can remember, anyway) was there a “we have to save the galaxy” episode. Even the later series that had some big bads – the Borg, the Dominion – used their galaxy-spanning threat sparingly.

Lots of the other Trek movies fall into the trap of making the stakes saving the entire fucking galaxy (or Solar System, at least). Superhero movies tend to do this a lot, too. The problem is that once you’ve put the entire world/galaxy/universe at peril, how likely is it that our heroes – be they Avengers or Starfleeters – to fail?

Another example where keeping the stakes low really helps is The Wolverine, the second stand-alone flick featuring the beclawed X-man.

It takes a break from the usual huge stakes of the X-Men movies (the mid-end-credit scene sets up precisely that – the need to save the world – for the next flick) and tells a story that focuses on Wolverine’s history and demons. The action is great, the story flows, and it never really goes beyond Japan. You get the sense that all this happened without any real impact on the outside world – but it story works precisely because it’s so personal and contained.

This all came to mind while I was reading Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End a little while back.

It’s a pretty good read and that’s largely due to the fact that for a long time it’s first contact story doesn’t have the hugest of stakes. What’s interesting is how the human main character and the alien she starts to help have to learn to communicate with each other and how to deal with the baggage each of them bring to the table just as members of their particular species. There’s some danger involved, naturally, but the stakes are fairly limited. That is, until about the last third of the book, where a threat to the Earth materializes. That doesn’t ruin things, but I was a bit disappointed.

I can’t say I’ve done a lot for reigning in stakes in my own work. Both The Water Road and the Unari Empire trilogies have pretty high stakes, if you consider the fate of nations to be high stakes (most would). They seemed natural for those stories, though, and since neither of them take place in our world, there’s no inherent need for any particular endings. Moore Hollow is considerably narrower and more personal, which is what I wanted from the get go, so that worked out well there.

As usual, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to figuring out how high the stakes should be in a story. Sometimes saving the universe is just right. Sometimes, all you need to do is have the characters make their way from Point A to Point B, having some fun and adventures along the way. Like anything else, it needs to be carefully considered to figure out what works best for the story you want to tell.

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