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FFC #77 - Figuring out stakes

Posted August 18th, 2021 at 03:20 PM by The Grim Reaper's Friend
TGRF's Fan Fiction Chronicles - Entry #77

Iíve said elsewhere that I want to use this time to further study writing, specifically what I have left to work on.

One of those areas is stakes. Stakes have always been a bit of an issue for me, as Iíve mentioned before on numerous occasions. Despite various proclamations that I had Ďfixedí stakes or Ďfound the answersí, they always were difficult to work with when developing a story.

Over the years, Iíve gotten an increasing understanding of the nature of stakes. Not only in simply what works and what doesnít, but why those things work or donít. Iíve analyzed books and films, read research, and formulated my own findings. Usually when you come up with a theory that fits everything like a glove, itís a sign youíre on the right track. Well, Iíve found such a theory, and I wanted to share it with the other writers here.

Iíve gotten bits and pieces of what exactly personal stakes (the protagonistís stakes) are. Over the years, Iíve thought stakes boiled down to a personal code of conduct or a belief the character holds to, putting what makes the character who he is on the line, or perhaps just detailing the character enough so that the reader has enough empathy for him to manufacture his own stakes. These are all pieces of a larger picture.

The basic core of a deep personal stake comes in two parts:

1. We donít want it to happen to the character
2. It will destroy the character if it does

The first point is easily dealt with through what Iíve always called ĎStrengthí: a core trait of the character which generates empathy for them in the reader. Loyalty, courage, and tenacity all work. Less obvious traits like simple humor, the ability to love, or caring for something weaker than you also work just as well. A character with Strength is generally a character the reader can strive to emulate in some area, and thus empathy is born, and a connection forged. Iíve seen this repeated over and over in almost (looking at you, Ocean's Eleven) every successful book or movie Iíve seen.

The second point is a bit trickier. Beginning writers (myself included) tend to assume that putting the characterís life at stake is as high as you can go. The reality is that a combination of countless life-or-death stakes, plus the unfortunate trend of plot armor in movies and books, means that threatening the characterís life doesnít hold the weight it should anymore.

The trick is to threaten the essence of the character. If you can kill them, but they become a martyr, their essence was never threatened. Who they were, what they stood for Ė that all remains.

For awhile I thought this was it. Find the core traits of your hero Ė what makes them who they are Ė and threaten those. But it still didnít add up. Some stories seemed to support this theory, but others did not. Those that did not still had me stumped. Examples of great storytelling like Finding Nemo, How to Train Your Dragon, and The Lark and the Laurel still didnít make sense (Bonus points if youíve ever heard of that last title).

So I studied those and other stories, and finally came up with a theory which seems to fit them all. I realized I was taking the Ďdestroyí part too literally. The character can easily continue living if they fail; they might even be happy and successful. But something will be lost, dead and forgotten. And that something is a form of who they are, or who they could become.

Putting the essence of who a character is at stake doesnít always work. But putting who the reader hopes they will become does. That might not be the essence of who they are now, but itís the essence we (the readers) want to survive. And thatís what matters.

Once I came to that conclusion, all the stories made sense. In Finding Nemo, Marlin can (and does) just walk away from trying to find his son. He will continue his life. But what is lost is who he could be Ė who indeed he was becoming throughout the movie. That person would be dead.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup has lots of pressure to just become a true Viking like heís always wanted to. But we know that if he does, heíll destroy the person he is becoming. Even if we canít see exactly who that person is, we can see the alternative, and just by watching, we know that Hiccup would lose something we donít want him to.

All the great movies and stories seem to follow this pattern to some extent. And when thatís the case, itís usually a safe bet that youíve found the right theory.

Iím interested in hearing your thoughts on this. What do you think?

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