I’ve been thinking about stakes a lot lately, both as I work on plotting out some of my own projects, help brainstorm the plotting of other friends, and watching all the season finales of assorted TV shows. There’s this sort of accepted bit of writing wisdom (of the same generic school as “write what you know”) that you should take your character’s worst nightmare(s) and make them come true. While I am all about creating some psychological angst in characters and giving them motivation for whatever it is I need them to do, I think there is actually a necessary BALANCE to strike on the matter of stakes.
NOTE: If you are not caught up on Supernatural or Burn Notice, you should leave and come back tomorrow because mega spoilers are ahead.
Still with me? Awesome.
Okay, let’s have a quick refresher on what I mean by stakes. This is what the character stands to lose if s/he fails in his/her quest. It could be that he could lose the girl. He could lose his job. He could lose his life. He could lose the life of his family. The nation could be blitzed by nuclear war. The planet could blow up. There’s a whole big range of things it could be, and part of your job as storyteller is to establish stakes as you write.
Stakes often change as the story progresses. This is all good and right. In Act 1 of a story, you show the character’s life Before. Before the inciting incident. Before the first plot point when things really get rolling. This is your character’s normal. And you have to start out here showing what he has to lose. So when The Thing That Changes His Goal happens, we care and we know what’s at stake. Then over the course of the story you raise the stakes. Make them bigger. And give your characters impossible choices. All in the name of upping the tension.
The current season of Burn Notice has been a great example of this. Our intrepid hero Michael Weston, formerly burned spy has taken down the organization that burned him, is working his way back into the good graces of the CIA and finds out he’s the puppet of Anson, the mastermind behind the organization that burned him. Anson is one scary SOB. Not because he’s a big bad ass dude but because he’s a rather genius psychologist who has made a study of Michael and knows exactly how to manipulate him (and everybody else). Early in the season he frames Fiona for an alleged terrorist attack and is holding her over Michael’s head all season as the threat. If you don’t do this, Fiona goes to prison forever. And as we learn in the season finale, there is no line Michael won’t cross to protect Fiona. Including implicating his new allies at the CIA (even though he ruins the evidence so they don’t get burned–it’s a classic attempt on his part to have his cake and eat it too–or rather do what the bad guy wants and try to stop him at the same time).
This season has almost, almost been too much for me as a viewer in the stakes department. The entire season has viewers balanced on an uncomfortable knife edge, knowing that something has to give and ultimately something AWFUL is going to happen, no matter what our ethical hero tries to do. And it does. Fiona doesn’t want to be the cause of Michael’s ruin, so she TURNS HERSELF IN (brave girl). Which of course sets us up for an entire new season of desperate action on his part to try to clear her or possibly break her out of prison (though I’m not sure even Michael is brave or stupid enough to take on Gitmo, which is where I suspect they might send her).
On the opposite end of the spectrum for examples of a show that has totally FUBARed the stakes we have Supernatural. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fangirl. Devout all the way through season four. But the last three seasons have me shaking my head and going “Dude, really?”
They started off well. Because of the flashbacks to the death of the boys’ mom, we know the kind of threat that hangs over the happy little normal life Sam has managed to build at Stanford. And then it happens. The demon takes Jess. And Sam goes on a vengeance bender. And then Dean gets that heart thing. I forget how but he’s gonna die and we have the threat of losing him. But by the reapers, he’s saved (with a whole new truckload of survivor guilt tacked on). Then they get Dad back. It’s the Winchesters in all their dysfunctional glory back again. They have the colt and they’re going after Yellow Eyes. Until they get plowed into by an 18 wheeler and Dad makes a deal with the bastard to save Dean’s life. So then they’re going on fighting knowing that Dad’s in hell. Then Sam dies the first time (again, don’t remember how offhand) and Dean makes the deal with the crossroads demon to bring him back.
This is where things start to break down. Once your own death is no longer a threat, your options kinda weaken. But okay, so Dean’s basically traded Sam’s life for his. He’s only expecting to live another 10 years at the most anyway with his life as a hunter. So then we’re waiting for the crossroads demon to come collect. And on it goes down the line as the Winchesters find out that they’re the key to Armageddon. Dean dies, goes to hell. Cass pulls him out to fight the good fight. Sam is supposed to be Lucifer’s chosen vessel, so he goes down into the pit too. Somewhere in there is the half brother they never knew about who also dies (but miraculously doesn’t come back–who knew?)
That’s about the point you think, oh maybe they’re gonna take the show in a new direction. Dean hooks up with Lisa and Ben and has a nice family thing going on. Then Sam comes back. Oh, but it’s without a soul. And somewhere in all this Dean decides with his noble self that his life is too dangerous for Lisa and Ben (because she nearly dies, or maybe she does die and gets brought back–they clearly like to do that) and when she wakes up from “the accident”, she (and Ben) has no memory of ever having known Dean. Then Dean has Death cram the soul back into Sam’s body, so then the threat is when will the Great Wall of Sam collapse and he’ll remember all the heinous things he did while running around without a soul. So then that happens and the threat is Sam’s insanity because he’s seeing Lucifer outside the cage in hallucinations. And then the Leviathan show up (and how much do I hate how the writers have presented THAT). AND THEN THEY EFFING KILLED BOBBY.
That’s it. We’re done. They have officially completely FUBARed the stakes because they have taken away every single thing the boys give a damn about except each other, to the point that I don’t think there’s anything left to drive them. Because the S.S. Vengeance can only take you so far before you put a bullet in your brain. There is absolutely NOTHING left driving the plot train for this show. We’re all only still watching for Dean’s pretty face and Sam’s shoulders or possibly in the vain hope that somehow by the end of the season they will PULL IT ALL BACK TOGETHER.
My point in all of this Supernatural fangirl rambling is DON’T DO THIS. There is nothing wrong with upping the stakes. It’s a good thing. You want to turn the thumbscrews. But you have to maintain a balance. If you make those stakes happen, if you make those nightmares a reality, then you damn well better have something kick ass and amazing up your sleeve that will continue to drive your characters. Because both your characters and your readers need one VERY VITAL INGREDIENT that Supernatural has forgotten:
You take that, you take everything. Remember, it’s the thing that was left in Pandora’s box that lets humankind cope with everything else. Don’t waste it.