The best science fiction and fantasy stories are impossible to tear yourself away from — and often, that thrilling sense of momentum comes from the sense that the danger to the world keeps getting bigger and scarier. But how do you raise the stakes without sacrificing your characters?
All images by Mateusz Orzminski (More at the link)
This is a huge challenge — we’ve all come across stories where fully-fledged three-dimensional characters get weaker, and less believable, the more massive the scope of the threat they’re facing becomes. The only antidote to this is twofold: to raise the stakes in a way that stays grounded, and to stay focused on your characters, even as the plot ramps up and up.
And before we go any further, let’s just stipulate that there’s nothing wrong with raising stakes — in fact, I’m a sucker for stories where someone saves the world. You can never save the world too often, in my opinion. But a person saving the world is always more interesting than a one-dimensional walking plot device saving the world.
In the context of a story, “raised stakes” often means “increased scale” — and as you pull back, details inevitably become smaller. Including your characters, who are suddenly dwarfed by the earth-shattering, unimaginable humongous, situation they’ve found themselves in. It’s hard to keep your characters in the foreground and, say, a 200-mile-tall planet-buster bomb in the background.
The only solution is not to pull back, as much as you can avoid it. Your characters can only take in as much sensory input as they can take in, and staying close to their perspective means we only glimpse the astonishing size of whatever they’re up against. (As a bonus, if you’re doing something that requires VFX instead of just words on a page, I guess this could be a money-saver.)
And you should never understimate the “fog of war” thing — the exact details of the crazy space battle or magical apocalypse may only become clear later, once the radioactive pixie dust settles. In fact, a situation where your characters have perfect information about everything that’s going on is less believable, and I always find my credulity strained by too much precision. As much as storytellers love the “ticking time bomb,” the higher the stakes go, the more I appreciate hearing things like “I don’t know how soon this is going to explode, but it looks like soon.”
Also, if your story takes place in a world with cable news or other mass media, then you can lean on that somewhat — the media has long experience at taking huge, terrifying events and making them seem somehow distant and kind of abstract, while also weirdly intimate.
Another huge problem: a wider scope of threat means you risk having things become too abstract to seem meaningful. The classic example is “I’m going to destroy the universe” — it’s impossible to picture the universe being destroyed, or even wrap your head around it, because the universe is rather large. It’s much easier to understand a small kitten in danger than the universe.
So the more you can keep the stakes concrete, as well as filtered through your characters’ perceptions, the easier it is for the audience to relate to both the plot devices and the characters struggling with them.
We’ve all experienced what “raised stakes” feel like in real life — when you’re in the middle of worrying about your busted air conditioner and imagining that being dragged to TMNT 2 is the worst thing that could happen to you, and then suddenly you hear your mom is in the hospital. Stakes are raised all the time in real life, often in the form of terrible things that come out of the blue.
And it’s absolutely true that people will put their own personal shit on hold when something bigger is on the line. In fact, not acknowledging this will make your story seem less realistic and character-based, not more. Stories where a spaceship is about to explode in less than a minute, but people still take time for a relationship conversation, do not win points for character-based realism, in my book.
That said, people don’t stop being themselves just because everything is on the verge of detonating. People may try to put their own personal shit on hold, but they don’t always succeed.
The real question is how to keep your characters as their genuine, recognizeable selves, with all their complexities and hang-ups. The worst case is that they just become walking plot devices — but there are lots of scenarios that are almost as bad as the worst case. You might find yourself resorting to character short-hand, doing cheap call-backs to earlier character development to make up for the characters going flat during the “rising action.” Or your characters could just be swept along by the demands of the plot, with token moments of personal growth in there.
All of the careful attention to making your massive stakes believable, and still reachable from a person-sized vantage point, will be for nothing, if your characters become ciphers.
So here are some things you can do to make the characters continue to breathe and feel human, even as the pace speeds up because they are trying to prevent/create something ginormous.
There are cheap and easy ways to make “raised stakes” feel personal — That’s my daughter in there! I want payback! — but a really great story is going to be one where your characters have goals or deeply held values that make the stakes in the story automatically personal to them. You picked these characters to be the protagonists of your story for a reason — and that has something to do with why they’re the right people for us to follow through this terrible situation. The reason you picked these people as the viewpoint characters or story drivers, ideally, has something to do with why this is “personal” or important for them.
You can also play around with time and subjectivity. The pace of events might be speeding up, but you can still insert a flashback that illuminates a character at a key moment. Sometimes, a digression or sidetrack can actually increase the suspense and tension, because everyone’s waiting on tenterhooks to see what happens next, and it just stretches that wait out a bit.
Also, time really does kind of slow down, subjectively, when everything is happening at once. And people think of the weirdest things when they’re under pressure and/or about to die. People in a life-or-death situation will suddenly find themselves remembering the weird sandwiches their best friend used to bring to work, because an overclocked brain tends to randomize. Also, weird smells trigger weird memories. (Never forget to include the sense of smell in a written story — if everything on Earth is being space-lasered, what does that smell like?)
The bottom line is, a good charcter, by definition, is one who resists being turned into a plot widget. Consider this the acid test for your characters. A good character will stubbornly remain her- or himself — and a great character will be so vivid in your mind that you keep having a nagging sense that this character would actually have a very unique and idiosyncratic reaction to these situations. In fact, if your main characters collapse down to a single dimension in the middle of a high-stakes situation, that’s a sign you have to go back to the drawing board.
But the part of your story where you’re raising the stakes is also a great place to stop and think again about your characters’ motivations and backstory, and everything that has shaped them up to this point. What are the lines they won’t cross, no matter how bad things get? What are their subconscious prejudices, that might come to the fore under pressure?
When people are in an extreme situation, we find out who they really are. People make surprising decisions and make snap judgments that are very personal, and those things are as much about fleshing your characters out as any relationship conversation or quiet introspective moment.
I guess what I’m saying is that a high-stakes situation can actually be the crucible that makes a good character great, by showing what they’re really all about. But this requires a lot of attention to your characters’ inner workings, and their complexity — in fact, probably a good rule of thumb is, the more you put on the line for your characters and their world, the more time you need to spend just trying to get into their skins. The pace of your storytelling might speed up — but you can spend as much time as you need to crafting that all-important sequence.
One final thought: The purpose of ratcheting up the consequences of failure for your characters is to lead up to a killer ending. And a killer ending, most of the time, is one where your characters make important choices, or come up with solutions, that are unique and hopefully surprising. That’s also one reason to make sure your characters are fully fleshed out and seem “real”. If you have a killer ending, then you need to make sure your characters have earned it. (If you don’t have a killer ending, well, here’s some ideas about that.)