In a good story, the main character has something at stake. Unfortunately, a lot of stories suffer from stakes that are, for lack of a better term, fake.
Steaks? Oh, stakes!
You might be wondering what I’m talking about. The stakes in a story are what’s at risk for the protagonist.
For example, in Star Wars, the freedom of everybody in the galaxy is at stake. If Luke and his friends fail, the galaxy will fall to a dark age of tyranny under the Sith. Of course, other stories have far smaller stakes. In Interview with the Vampire, it’s just Louis’s well-being at stake. And in a random comedy — the Silver Linings Playbook for example — it’s ‘only’ the relationship of the two main characters. So, stakes can vary, and that’s okay, as long as we readers and/or viewers can relate to them.
But, stakes should change during a story. They need to escalate until the largest stakes are tackled at the climax of the story. Take Star Wars: A New Hope. The stakes start with a beleaguered princess needing ‘plans’ for some Rebel Alliance. Then we learn of the Death Star, and we see the tyranny the Rebels are up against. Escalation again: it turns out the stakes are the minute hope of destroying this Death Star. And finally, at the climax, the stakes are raised one step further; the Death Star not only threatens the galaxy, but Luke’s new friends directly.
And that’s how stakes should work.
Getting it wrong
Creating good stakes is hard. The stakes need to tie into the character arc and plot, and need to escalate step by step until they’re tackled at the climax. Nailing that climax requires stakes that are personal to the protagonist, but they also need to tie into their character arc. Not only that, they need to tie into what the villain wants. A lot of stories mess up.
One problem, is if a story fails to relate them properly to the protagonist. Look at Star Wars again. ‘Saving the galaxy’ seems fine on the surface, but Luke’s arc is not about just that. He’s finding a place in the world, and it’s also about his friendships. What makes A New Hope work is that the threat escalates to a direct threat to Luke’s friends.
Sometimes, the stakes don’t tie into the character’s arc very well. I’ve spoken about the missed opportunities in X-Men: Days of Future Past before. One of them is the stakes. Wolverine is the protagonist, and the stakes are personal: his future is at stake. However, the stakes of the story tie in to the relation between humans and mutants like the X-Men. Humans are on the verge of declaring war on mutants, and mutants have two paths to walk, as personified by Xavier (help humanity to find peave) and Magneto (fight humanity into submission). They also escalate along those lines, leading to a climactic showdown between Xavier and Magneto. That has nothing to do with Wolverine, or his arc. So… oops.
The complications that raise stakes need to flow naturally from the villain’s character. Way too often, stories have a cackling villain that does evil for evil’s sake, raising the stakes, but in a nonsensical way. The best villains are the heroes of their own stories, not insane maniacs cutting loose for no reason.
One of the biggest disappointments of Rise of SkyWalker was the return of the Emperor. It did not make a lot of sense, but worse: he was just a cackling villain. His motivation seemed to be ‘well, I’m back from the dead, time to make everybody’s life miserable’. It was a problem with the Emperor in the original Star Wars, but more so here. The man had zero life comforts, living in some weird hell-hole. He has zero reason to do all the complicated things he does. He’s just evil, for evil’s sake.
But that raises the stakes, doesn’t it? Yes, the galaxy has to be saved, but evil for evil’s sake is the same as ‘random’. Meaning it could happen again the next day. It devaluates the stakes.
So, the way stakes come about is important. A lot of writers seem to miss this. They think any old complication will do. But stories are about foreshadowing, and logical steps the reader can agree with. We call random serendipity a Deus Ex Machina. Maybe we should call these random complications Diaboli Ex Machina (the devil from the machine). By which I mean, a climactic problem pulled out of thin air.
Worse is when these complications are quickly squashed and form weird subplots that don’t feed into the bigger story. In video games they’re non-sensical random side quests, in stories they’re non-sequitur subplots.
So, an example. I’m currently reading The Adventures of a Xeno-Archaeologist by Jenny Schwartz. I’ll do a full review soon. One of the things that happens in these stories, is that they a young girl from a space station, where she grew up, to a planet. The open sky triggers agoraphobia in her (which they call ‘sky terror’ for some reason). The main characters mull it over, discuss the possible complications to their lives. It’s a whole thing for a few chapters. Then, after the girl has rested after her trip… it’s gone, she’s overcome her fears. And she’s never bothered again.
It’s a completely pointless random subplot that serves no purpose but to fill the book. Well, almost no purpose. Whenever these things happen, they do tell you something about how the characters involved think. So, as a way to get to know a character, it has a function. But, you preferably want to have it do double duty: enlighten us about the character and advance the plot. Meaning, you want it to part of a chain of events that lead somewhere.
Sometimes the stakes are not that high, but the writer wants them to be. That’s when a writer might pretend the stakes are higher than they really. Characters might get all bent out of shape about things that are not that big of a problem.
My daughter has discovered YouTube, and the flood of Roblox movies there. I’m flabbergasted by the level of melodrama in some of those. “I was attacked by zombies! Oh no, what do It do now? Then I found a crossbow, and took care of the zombies. Then a dragon showed up! I was going to die. And then I escaped.”
It was also one of my pet peeves of the show Arrow. A lot of the characters in the show go off at the slightest problem. Oh no, the protagonist is late for dinner with his mother and sister, there is now an gaping rift between them. Oh wait, they made up. No, characters getting bent out of shape over small annoyances is not a relationship at stake.
It’s all melodrama.
Stakes are hard. Well, okay, writing in general is hard. But stakes have their own set of pitfalls, that often end up breaking a story, so it’s good to think about them.
If you’re a writer I hope this helps you, and if not, I hope I haven’t ruined too many TV shows and books for you.