An open discussion about stakes

I try to always post something on Sunday's. I've been a bit busy catching up from the delays my paycheck job threw me. Still, I sent an extensive email to the promotion company I found in Sun Valley. I finished my critiques and am ready for our group tomorrow. Will O' the Wisp is getting an Amazon advertising campaign too. I even managed to catch up with Dr. Who, Last Man Standing, and S.H.I.EL.D. I caught the finale of Fear the Walking Dead moments ago.

I'll figure out a way to catch up with Sleepy Hollow somewhere down the line. I have some major reading booked out for tomorrow too.

These programs got me to thinking about stakes. Good stories need them. The higher they are, and the more clear they are, the better the story… In many cases.

I'm free writing this tonight. Time caught up with me, and I usually get more time to think about stuff before I write.

When Obi Wan croaked, it didn't just propel Luke to new heights. It demonstrated to the audience that genuine risk was involved. Of course they had that whole Death Star demonstration too.

There are stories, like cute romances, where the stakes don't have to be life and death. I still think something has to be on the line, I think the more personal it is, the more it resonates with readers. Catching the killer might be interesting, but it's more interesting with a girl in a well or future victims at risk.

Nothing provides stakes like The Walking Dead. (The original one.) Many of you might argue for Game of Thrones, but I choose TWD. In each case, fully formed characters die. Viewers (readers) understand the stakes, and have seen the result of failure first hand.

In S.H.I.E.L.D. Colson lost a hand and part of his forearm. He managed to briefly turn this into a weapon, of sorts. I respect Colson, and know he's going to continue the fight. Previews tell me Dr. Who is going to die next week. I'm fairly sure time travel will repair this situation.

Do stakes have to be this personal? I believe there is an opportunity to demonstrate a burned out village, and a few refugees. It doesn't have to be on a character level each time. It can be so much better at a personal level though.

I've seen a few things recently where the stakes didn't measure up. They were killed in a flashback, telling me with certainty the character survived. The version of past tense did the same thing in one case.

In a treasure hunt type story, if the character can simply walk away there aren't enough stakes. Greed is a great motivator, but if Camelot will fall without the Holy Grail it's that much better.

I still remember when Robin was killed by The Joker. Those are stakes. Robin II survived a few adventures, and we knew Robin I survived all his adventures. When Robin II died, it gave renewed vigor to the Batman mythology.

I even went so far as killing off my main character in one story. Maybe this is too far, but it would have made a great Greek tragedy. I've been thinking about a short story called The Death of Lisa Burton. If I ever write this one, I assure her fans that she has an escape plan.

How far are you willing to go in your stories? Do you stop at redshirt characters? Those whose sole purpose of being in the story is to die and establish stakes for the hero. Is the sidekick going to kick off in your story? Is the main character going to get it, only to have the sidekick rise up and finish the story? Are you the kind who kills off the pet character? The mentor?

Let me hear it. What tricks do you use to establish stakes? How far are you willing to go? What prevalent tales disappointed in the stakes department? I'm going to start writing again as winter approaches, and maybe you can teach me something.



Filed under Writing

28 responses to “An open discussion about stakes

  1. Interesting subject Craig. One of my proofreaders thaought it was ‘trite’, in the last book, to have my hero attacked by the murderer because he got too close. In my opinion surely this is going to happen to him at some point. As an amateur, persuing an unhinged murderer, surely there is some jeopardy? For me it’s arguable that in detective fiction it is sometimes too safe for the amateur to conduct their investigation and the reader forgets the real danger?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sure, kill off the best friend. Parents are expendable, and grandparents are practically cannon fodder. But the PET? You’re a monster.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ali Isaac

    I agree with you. One of my main characters died in book2. In book3, well, you might be surprised. Saying no more! The stakes have to be high. If not, who is going to care? GoT goes too far though… creates too many characters, and kills off too many. I’m only watching now because of Tireon. Really dont care about the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m always leery about killing main characters, but I’ll take out a big supporting cast one if the moment is right. I think part of it is because I keep having people demand that I kill the big ones throughout a series, so I feel it’s come to be expected. There’s not as much surprise in that thanks to shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. So I counter this by putting a physical and mental/emotional stake. How much can a hero take before they lose their edge or make a mistake that can roll out of control? What about a member of a team losing their confidence and breaking danger to the others? They aren’t as lofty as life/death, but I like the evolution that comes from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know you’ve taken a lot of crap over GOT. I admire you for sticking to your guns. Psychological stakes can be awesome. It could be more powerful in many ways.


      • It’s amazing how much GoT has changed the fantasy genre. I haven’t gotten as much crap as I did when I started. That was when I got messages telling me to change my series to mirror GoT or else I wouldn’t go far. It was strange being told to add more politics, kill most of the cast, throw in sex, and make it more graphic as if this would improve the story while retaining it’s individuality. Never had anything against GoT, but being a fantasy author in the same genre came with an unexpected headache from that fandom. Gotta give them credit for dedication though. πŸ™‚

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, they are dedicated. All the genres are broad based. Scoobie doo could fit in the same field as Sherlock Holmes. I think fantasy has room for more than just GOT.


      • Fantasy is a really weird genre in that respect. I had this discussion with a friend earlier this year. There is plenty of room for different varieties of fantasy. Yet, it always seems to be one that stands above the others and determines the trend. Is it ‘dark fantasy’, ‘sword & sorcery adventure’, ‘political fantasy’, or ‘realistic fantasy’? It’s like there can only be one at a time for some bizarre reason.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I had Lisa bring my soapbox up from the basement. Sounds like there is a great blog post in that statement somewhere. Want to borrow it?


      • Think I’ve actually used it a few times. Honestly, I get into debates so often that I feel like I’ve beaten the horse, raised it from the dead, beat it again, and then moved on to the cowboy.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t hold back. Crime writers, especially, really can’t. In one story I killed the pet, and it tore me up for days. I still have a hard time reading the scene, but it was necessary in order to force my protagonist to up her game. Don’t know if I’ll be doing that again. But I have no problem murdering any other character. I’ve never killed my protagonist, but I have heard it’s very effective as long as it’s in the right spot. After all, the best craft books say your protagonist can be a warrior or martyr themselves in the climax. Good for you for upping your stakes to new heights. Some of the best stories do just that.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I agree, if the stakes aren’t high enough, the story may not be interesting enough. I did kill off one of my primary characters in one of my books, because it had to happen. The consequence of failing the mission was the death of one of the main players. And I agree with Sue, crime writers can’t hold back. Some of the mysteries I remember enjoying the most are the ones where I know the MC is the target, and I’m hoping s/he realizes it before the bad guy/gal gets to him/her.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve killed off the pet before and I’ve killed off supporting characters, but not in anything I’ve published. And I know I would never kill off the main character, although I have read numerous books where it happens. They usually leave me disappointed in the end, but that’s just my personal preference.

    There is a series of books I’m addicted to, and those are the Pendergast novels by Preston and Child. Thriller/crime fiction with some weirdness tossed in. Not that long ago they killed off a major character and I was devastated, but it didn’t stop me from following the series and it actually straightened the novel (in which the character died). Now, if they ever killed off Pendergast (and let another character take over), I’d stopped reading!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve never killed the pet before. I mentioned to another commenter that it feels almost like a trope to my generation. My story worked well as a Greek tragedy, using the death to propel the others to something bigger. At the end of the day, I found a fantasy solution that works better for modern sensibilities.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Well this is kinda deep, and I hadn’t thought about it before this post. I’ll be churning this around fersure.
    The stakes, per se, in my works are much more emotional and have more to do with fear and shame, although some greed would be a motivator as well.
    Thanks for the thought bubble.

    Liked by 1 person

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