Writing Excuses 11.24: Stakes!
Key Points: Raise the stakes does not mean make it more world shattering. What are stakes? Things that keep your characters from walking away from conflicts. What keeps people fighting when they have conflicting goals? What is important enough to keep them in the game? Often, the difference between a hero and a villian is the magnitude and type of stakes they are fighting over. To raise the stakes, don’t add more villians or explosions, make it more personal for the main character. The destruction of the galaxy? Who cares? Saving the life of a friend? We’re with y’a! Make it personal, and make the audience care. Get into the character’s head and show us why it matters, what motivates them. Be aware, we can empathize with a villian, or with thieves in a heist. Consider likability, competency, and proactivity! Build engagement with character sliders. Don’t forget selflessness and sacrifice as ways to build empathy. The Cornwell trick? Establish two sets of stakes, put them in conflict, and let the main character sacrifice personal gain for greater good. Revenge stories and other selfish tales often use the B plot to get readers engaged. Or proactivity, especially with something that just won’t quit getting in the way.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 24.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses. Stakes!
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re vampires.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mwahaha ha ha!]
[Brandon] I remember when… the first time we were visiting your family, out in Chattanooga…
[Mary] I am fascinated by this segue.
[Brandon] Yes. And…
[Brandon] I said I really want to go get some steaks. I asked you where we could get them, before I remembered you were vegetarian. You still took us to a place to get steaks, however, and they were tasty.
[Dan] We gave you bacon.
[Mary] Yeah, there was that. The bacon. Now to go back to…
[Brandon] Okay, now I’ll go back to the stakes. Not that kind of steaks.
[Dan] Neither kind of stakes either of us have mentioned thus far.
[Brandon] Neither of the stakes we have mentioned.
[Dan] Obviously, we mean tent stakes.
[Brandon] All right. We’re going to talk about the stakes of your story. Mary and Dan…
[Howard] That’s three mistakes in a row.
[Brandon] This is going worse and worse.
[Howard] We’re so funny.
[Brandon] You pitched this episode. Why did you pitch this episode?
[Mary] I’ve been working with some students on doing a novel workshop, and one of the things that people seem to have a lot of trouble with is understanding what stakes are. You get the advice all the time “Have to raise the stakes.” There’s a temptation to think that this means that you have to make it more world shattering. I think that that is a fundamental [mis] understanding of the role that stakes play in fiction. So the thing that I’ve been trying to come up with is a better way to describe it. For me, what it comes down to is basically the stakes, the thing that is at stake, is the thing that keeps your character from being able to walk away from the conflicts. So like if you’re having an argument with someone… Like if I, and this is a minor stake, but if I have my character and he’s working on making an instrument and his mom comes in and she wants him to go to a dance. If he has nothing at stake, he can put the instrument down and say, “Okay, let’s talk about this.” If she has nothing at stake, she’s like, “Oh, you’re busy right now, I’ll come back.” So what is it that keeps them both in the room when they both have conflicting goals? What is at stake for each of them? That is the thing, when we talk about raising the stakes, making sure that the character always has something that is important enough to keep them in the game.
[Howard] Part and parcel with that, we have to believe that that will work. You have to have already sold me on that. For me, a good example of stakes, when it matters and when it doesn’t matter. There are arguments that I can just walk away from. I’m here at a convention, and I’m having a conversation with somebody. I realize, “Oh. This is just not a conversation I want to continue, and I don’t have to.” I will walk away. If I am having a disagreement with one of my children, that is not one of the options that is on the table. Because taking that option will damage the relationship in a way that creates a really, really interesting story that I’m just not interested in being part of.
[Dan] When we… Mary and I were on a panel earlier today here at Phoenix Comic Con talking about evil and villains. I can’t remember if it was you who said it or Victoria Schwab, but I just thought this was one of the most brilliant things I’ve heard.
[Mary] Oh, then it was me.
[Dan] So I assume it was you. Talking about how often the difference between a hero and a villain are the magnitude of the stakes that they’re fighting over. In my head, I immediately thought of a dystopian story. So, for example, from the villain’s point of view, the stakes are the survival of our nation or our species. We have to do things this way because of these big, huge reasons. Whereas the hero is often fighting against much smaller stakes. Well, this society is going to destroy my life or my sister’s life or something like that. So they’re both kind of fighting for good things, but the stakes are totally different and on different scales.
[Mary] That is brilliant, and that was not me.
[Dan] It was Victoria, then. I just thought it was amazing. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
[Brandon] This is a conversation that I wish we could have, and you guys could have, with many a Hollywood exec. Because the idea of raising the stakes seems to be a big thing in Hollywood. Well, we need to raise the stakes for the second film. What they do to raise the stakes is they make it less personal to the main character, but add more villains or more explosions.
[Dan] That was one of the things… One of the many things that I really loved about Capt. America: Civil War.
[Brandon] Okay. No spoilers. I haven’t seen it yet.
[Mary] Nor have I.
[Dan] Okay. I won’t give any spoilers, but I will say that after movie after movie where the finale is a big giant fight over a city, this one does not do that. It was really refreshing and very cool.
[Brandon] That is excellent. That’s, you can see the… The Marvel movies are doing a pretty good job of this. They have their foibles. I think they’ve may be learned from the old Spiderman films that were like, “Well, the second movie, we’ll have two villains. The third movie, we’ll have seven vill…” I mean, all of this sort of thing. The danger of that, the problem is, this whole… It makes it less personal to divide the time, not more personal. So it lowers the stakes instead of raising the stakes.
[Howard] When I told the story in Schlock Mercenary Resident Mad Scientist, the sixth book. It’s a time travel story in which we are using the energy generated by the destruction of our galaxy to go back in time and prevent the destruction of our galaxy. It’s ultimate huge stakes. It does not become personal for anybody. You don’t care, until you realize that the person going back is also going to save the life of his friend. Who died before the whole Galactic brouhaha happened. That story was so satisfying for me. I mean, it resonated with a lot of readers, but ah, I don’t care. It worked well for me. It told me who these people were. After that story, which I told in 2006, I’ve been telling stories for 10 years since then, and I haven’t tried to blow up the galaxy even one time.
[Howard] I haven’t needed to. Because now I’ve figured that out. All I need to do is make it personal, and the threat can be quite small.
[Mary] The thing that you said about the audience doesn’t care. That is the thing that makes the stakes personal. Because you can have a personal stake. But if the audience doesn’t buy into it, then… Like, I mean, Joffrey has a personal stake, in Game of Thrones. We don’t care.
[Brandon] So, let me ask, how do you do that then? Let’s talk about this? How can you make it personal and we care?
[Horn playing Hunt music!]
[Dan] Well, Robin Hood has a suggestion for us.
[Brandon] I don’t know if you guys’ll be able to pick that up, but we are at Phoenix Comic Con, and the… Someone is blowing a horn, out in the main lobby.
[Dan] That’s not a horn, that was my text thing.
[Howard] That’s Dan’s phone.
[Dan] I have it muted, but sometimes alerts still come through.
[Brandon] I’m blaming the poor con goers, and you are the one that’s interrupting.
[Dan] Keep it quiet down there, con goers.
[Mary] Dan has something at stake here.
[Mary] So how do we make the audience care? I know that I talk about Jane Austen a lot, but Persuasion is, I think, a really good example of making us understand. Because there is really literally nothing at stake in that book, except “Will she be happy?” That’s the thing that’s at stake. That’s it. But we care about it deeply, because she gets into the character’s head. I think this is one of the things, one of the tools that we have as authors that is very effective is that we can get into the character’s head and we can understand why it matters to them.
[Brandon] Okay. So motivation…
[Mary] That why…
[Brandon] Is what you’re getting at. We need to understand the motivation. Do… Like go back to the Joffrey problem. Do we also need to empathize and want it to happen?
[Mary] I think so, but the weird thing… And we’re talking about this again on the villains panel is that you can empathize with someone who is really actually a villain.
[Brandon] Right. That’s right. Magneto’s the really great example. You empathize, you don’t want him to enslave all of humanity.
[Mary] I would actually say… I mean, yes, Magneto. But, but, actually like again Lies of Locke Lamora. They’re the bad guys. Any heist film, you’ve got your thieves. Those are villains. But they’re acting as the protagonists.
[Howard] Well, lawbreakers.
[Mary] But we care about it. Lawbreakers.
[Brandon] Some of them are villains. Sometimes they take great pains to say, “No, no, they’re robbing somebody worse.”
[Howard] I think it’s worthwhile to do a call back, and I can go ahead and link this in the liner notes. When we were messing with the character sliders. The… Those sliders, the idea of how likable is a character? How competent is a character? How… Oh, what was the third one, I don’t even remember?
[Howard] How proactive is the character? When we are trying to raise stakes, when we are trying to build engagement with the audience for whatever is at stake, those sliders… How do we feel about this person? When I told the story in Resident Mad Scientist, Capt. Tagon dies saving the lives of the other people who are with him. It’s kind of a heroic and wonderful moment and… Well, yes, he’s a violent mercenary sort of person, but he’s good. We like him. Now he’s gone.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is Mrs. Grigsbee and the Rats of NIMH.
[Mary] Mrs. Frisbee!
[Brandon] Frisbee! Frisbee. Yes, I should have known that.
[Mary] That’s okay. I have been listening to Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH at audible.com, and loving it. This is a book that I read as a child multiple times. It’s one of my go to’s. This is a beautiful narration. This is a really good book to read when you want to read about stakes. Also looking at ways to raise them without being unbelievable, even though we are talking about talking rats and mice. It’s beautifully portrayed. The narrator is fantastic. Highly recommended.
[Brandon] So. If you want to pick up a copy of Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH by Robert O’Brian, you can head over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse, start your trial membership. It is read by Barbara Caruso, and high praises for Mary on the audiobook version of this story.
[Brandon] All right. You looked like you had something you really wanted to say about raising stakes, and I cut you off for our book of the week.
[Mary] Oh, no, it was something that I realized, and again, from the villains panel.
[Dan] It was such a good panel, you guys.
[Mary] It was such a good panel. That one of the things, and this ties into what Howard was saying before the break, that one of the things about the stakes, and one of the things that differs Joffrey from other people, is it’s the difference between selfless and selfish. That frequently when we care about someone and what they have at stake, it is because the thing that they have at stake is actually for someone else. Again, in Persuasion, it also has to do with the main character sometimes being willing to give up their own happiness because they care more about someone, willing to give up their own life because they care about someone. It’s that selflessness, I think, that can help you… Help the reader empathize with the thing that is at stake.
[Brandon] So… Go ahead, Dan.
[Dan] I… This is a slightly different topic, but I’m thinking about one of my favorite authors, Bernard Cornwell. One thing he does in almost every book is he will establish two different sets of stakes and put them in conflict with each other. Here is a character who… Uhtred of Bebbanburg in the Saxon Chronicles. He wants to get his castle back. He wants to get this woman back that he’s married to. He wants to get these things for himself, but also, he needs to help Alfred the Great establish England. Sooner or later, he won’t be able to do both and he’ll have to choose. That creates this wonderful tension and ultimately a lot of tragedy, when he inevitably chooses the country over himself. He does that in every book, and I eat it up every time.
[Brandon] What is it about those stakes, specifically, that works for you? Let’s talk about that story. Why do those stakes… Why do you care?
[Mary] It’s the moment of selflessness.
[Dan] Yeah. Going back to what you were saying, and I think that’s part of it, is because there is the one he wants for himself, he wants to get his family castle back, but…
[Brandon] Does it establish why he wants the family castle back?
[Dan] Yes. Actually, that’s where the entire nine book series starts, is with him losing that castle, and every book he wants to get back, he wants to go back and reclaim it again, establishes family glory, and do all these wonderful things. Other books will do different things. He wants to train his son to be a great warrior like himself. All these other things. But invariably, there’s the much bigger thing. The Queen is in danger, or the king’s son has been captured, or something like that, and he’ll have to choose something nobler than his own cause. I think that that’s what it must be. It’s why I love it so much, is it’s that sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good. That he’s giving up this thing he wants so much. It’s because he wants it so much, that it makes it that much more powerful when he gives it up.
[Mary] That is actually what makes O’Henry’s Gift of the Magi work.
[Brandon] Yes. So let me throw a curveball at you. Because I agree with all of this. But the piece of my brain’s saying, “Well, there’s stories that violate this.” Obviously. So what about the stories where it is a selfish desire? Say, revenge narratives? Revenge narratives where it is I am going to go do this thing. Yet some of those work pretty well for stakes.
[Mary] I mean…
[Brandon] What makes us… What makes it there, where it’s selfish…
[Howard] Usually, with those, the revenge narrative is the A plot, for lack of a better term, and you give me something that is running parallel to that that is the B plot. That might actually be what I’m engaged with. Assuming that success at the revenge plot is going to be our triumph quote unquote. But yeah, usually that’s not the thing that I will engage with, unless you have given me a reason to care beyond just saying, “No, this bad guy really is that bad. Look, here he murders a kitten.”
[Brandon] See, I totally agree with you. I think going back to character sliders, we’ve talked a lot about nobility, right? Beyond myself? Those are likable things. Those move the scale up on the character’s likability. That says, “Okay. We like them, we want them to achieve.” But I do think we can do it with the proactivity. If they’re someone who is just hyper competent and something is in their way consistently, that will aggravate us and raise the stakes on getting past the thing, because they have so often run into this problem.
[Dan] Okay. Here’s a funny example of it. One of my favorite revenge movies is Payback by Mel Gibson. In which… The reason this works for me is because the stakes are so low, and he chases them so hard. It’s a comedy action movie. The mob has stolen something ridiculously stupid from him, like $30,000. He’s not chasing millions, he’s not trying to get his wife back, he just wants his 30 grand back. None of the mobsters can even believe that he is fighting so hard and causing so much trouble to get this stupid 30 grand, and it’s wonderful.
[Brandon] I want my two dollars.
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and do a writing prompt. Mary, you have a writing prompt for us.
[Mary] Yeah. So I’ve been doing this thing where I write a story in 15 minutes for charity. I start it based on three things. An object, a character, and a genre. So. Listener. Look to your left. That is your object.
[Mary] Look at the bookshelf. The first book you see, that is your genre. And your character is your best friend. Now write a story for 15 minutes.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.