Is it possible for stakes in writing to be too high?
It seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)
Point being, I saw the same iteration of high stakes in writing over and over:
Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).
Stakes in Writing: the “Chosen One”
I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?
Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!
Can Stakes Be Too High?
The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the sky high stakes are maybe…too high.
Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and raising the stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?
Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes in writing tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.
Selling Huge Stakes Is Difficult
Once your inciting incident kicks off, you have a lot of convincing to do — starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.
So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the character and plot need to be inextricably tied to make your high stakes believable.
High Stakes Need to be Tied to Your Specific Character
This specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.
Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.
Make Your Stakes More Personal
That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.
Hire me to be your book editor and I’ll help you evaluate if your stakes are too low or too high, and give you actionable steps to make them compelling yet believable.