Why Your Stakes Shouldn’t Be Too High

This week’s video cautions against raising stakes beyond the scope and established conflict of your story.

Video Transcript:

What’s one of the first things any novelist learns? Raise the stakes, right? Think of the worst possible thing that could happen to your character, then make it worse. Losing his job—eh, that’s not so bad. So maybe, after he loses his job, his daughter gets kidnapped. But that’s still not the worst thing that could happen. So maybe his daughter and the President gets kidnapped. Maybe they get kidnapped by brain-sucking aliens in the middle of an apocalyptic snowstorm, with the threat of nuclear war looming on the horizon. Now we’re talking high stakes! Just try to tell me how we could make that one any worse for the character.

But really the question we should be asking ourselves at this point is not, “How can we possibly make this situation any worse?”—but rather, “Should the stakes be this high?” The bare and simple truth is not every story needs to have the stakes ramped to the hilt. Your quiet literary saga is probably not going to benefit from a nuclear holocaust. In fact, not all political thrillers or war stories are going to benefit from a nuclear holocaust if the grandiose scope of the stakes takes the attention away from what really matters: the characters.

If you push your stakes too far beyond the scope and the established conflict of your story, you’re likely to end up with either a series of events that don’t make linear sense, or a series of events that are going to spiral into ridiculous melodrama. Never discount subtlety, even in the high-tension excitement of dangerous and adventurous stories. Keep in mind the arc you’re trying to create for your characters. Some characters may need to endure a nuclear holocaust in order to learn their lessons and change their ways. But sometimes the catalyst a story needs—i.e., the “worst” thing that can happen to a character—is something much smaller and more intimate.

Tell me your opinion: What raises the stakes in your story?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I’ve read more than a few fantasy novels that suffered from stakes that were too high. Mostly in the form of ridiculously powerful bad guys pitted against heroes who, realistically, would have no hope of winning. It seems like some authors set up these things without actually knowing how they’re going to resolve the situation and then end up just coming up with some silly cop-out ending. I hate that. It would be better to just not raise the stakes that high to begin with.

  2. It’s funny, I was considering this while reading Lord of the Rings: if the Quest fails, Gandalf intimates somewhere in Return of the King, the world will basically be destroyed. That, to me, raised the stakes too high for the Quest to possibly fail — what kind of story would allow such an ending? I like stories where the stakes are just low enough that the chance of failure exists. Some authors have done it, or made the “victory” far more bitter than sweet.

    In my WIP, the stakes are the protagonist’s own life. The country would be in a bad state, presumably, and many people would die; but the very event that increases the threat to his life is an event that shows the entire country indeed wouldn’t be destroyed if the arch-villain gets his way.

    And no, Sarah, the arch-villain is not so ridiculously powerful that I need a cop-out ending ^_^

  3. Great point–sometimes the “worst thing” that can happen is something with more intimate impact on particular character and his or her deepest self.

    I think the only time one can successfully ramp up the stakes overly high is in farce, where it is done for comic effect. Sadly, some overly ramped-up thrillers and fantasy stories come off as unintentionally funny for this reason.

  4. @Sarah: Antagonists are surprisingly difficult to get right. Too weak and whole story lacks zing. Too strong and it just doesn’t work. We want to see the hero triumph by his strength and skill (preferably hard-won over the course of the story), not sheer luck.

    @Daniel: I like to see several layers within the stakes (those affecting the protagonist personally, those affecting people he cares about, and those affecting the world around him, to at least some extent). But smaller is more intimate – which often means more relatable and more painful (in a good way!) for readers.

    @Laurel: Exactly. And the last thing most of us want our high-powered action stories to turn into is a comedy!

  5. I agree. An important element of a good story is the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. To achieve that, there has to be a certain level of plausibility. When it starts to get so extreme that it’s implausible, readers aren’t going to buy into it.

  6. Readers are often very forgiving in their suspension of disbelief – up to a point. Beyond that point, they have no patience whatsoever.

  7. In my westerns, I usually top the stakes out at risk of the protagonist’s life.
    No use making a big explosion when the protagonist ain’t gonna be there to enjoy it… 😉

  8. And exploding protagonists are always interesting! 😉

  9. It’s a really important point that the stakes can be too high, also that it has to fit the genre. Thanks for the video.

  10. Genre considerations are always crucial. Stakes that are too high for one genre may be way too low for another. The story is always boss.

  11. I tried to write a story that was huge and epic and world ending, but it didn’t work out. I had a whole plot worked out, which included corrupt government officials and plots to take over the country. Except as I wrote it, things didn’t work out like that. Instead it became a extremely personal battle between the hero and his enemy. The greatest loss came when the main character’s friend was killed by the antagonist. The world was never in danger and really the biggest thing that could have happened was the death of the characters. A very big loss for them, but the world wouldn’t have even noticed.

    A lot of authors assume that world ending drama is the easiest to write. I mean after all, what higher stakes can you have. But for the reader to actually be afraid of what might happen, you have to get them so into the book that they aren’t thinking at all. The reader needs to be on a roller coaster that’s moving so fast and has so many twists and turns that they forget they are attached to a metal bar and are perfectly safe. This is extremely hard to do.

  12. Exactly. Getting a reader to invest in a story always comes down to getting him to invest in something relatively small – just one character. If we can do that, the stakes grow exponentially without much extra effort on our parts.

  13. My WIP I think is suffering from the stakes-too-high melodrama. And I’m not even 1/4 through. I think this is happening because of my intense focus on plotting (Larry Brooks style) and I became obsessed with not having any boring scenes. And now my setup is lacking subtlety — riddled with whiz-flash-bang moments and at least one moment of sobbing on the floor. And I wanted to have it be something like a Du Maurier novel, vaguely.
    Must rewrite.
    Thanks for your awesome advice as always. Long time lurker-first time commenter.

  14. One of the best ways to keep scenes interesting without letting them ramp into melodrama is to focus on the action/reaction balance. For every action sequence (goal/conflict/disaster), there needs to be a reaction period (reaction/dilemma/decision). I am planning a series on scene construction for December and January, so keep your eyes out for that!

  15. Awesome, we’re all looking forward to it.:)

  16. Me too! 😉