Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Don't Put The Whole World On The Chopping Block

Think about the last time you were reading a book, and just as the third act really got going it was revealed that the villain's actions are going to destroy the entire world if they aren't stopped. Maybe it will actually destroy the whole planet, or maybe it will just result in the total collapse of all things that make life worth living in that world (the "but what if Sauron wins?" scenario), but the point is that the protagonist, everyone they know, and everyone they care for will be dead (or worse) if they don't succeed in their chosen course of action.

Can you remember a time where you were more bored?

After all, who would smash up that pristine real estate?
It seems counter-intuitive, but stay with me on this one. The idea behind raising the stakes is to ratchet up the tension in your story. You want your audience to be unable to look away while they contemplate everything that's riding on the protagonist's shoulders. Which is why if there's a bank robbery, they take hostages. It's why our love interest always gets a new partner just as our lead is working up the guts to say how they feel. You get the idea.

The problem with ending the world is that it's too big to contemplate, and thus it loses its impact.

That probably doesn't make much sense, but think of it this way. If someone offered you $10,000 to do something shady, that would be a sum of money most of us could understand in concrete terms. You may not have had that much money all at once before, but you know what you could buy with it, and about how far it would get you. Now say someone was going to pay you $10 million. Unless you move in some very specific circles, you don't have any idea what that's actually like. The sum might as well be $100 million, or $100 billion, because the numbers would have the same meaning to you. Because they got too big for you to have a concrete sense of what it all really means.

That's the reason why people who are dirt poor that win the lottery are back to being dirt poor in a handful of years, and it's the reason why threatening to blow up the entire world has no impact. The stakes are big, but we cannot honestly get a sense of them because they're too big.

Make It Smaller, And More Intimate

The key to making your stakes feel bigger is to give the audience something concrete. Something our mammalian brain can comprehend, and actually be shocked by. It's not a coincidence that in James Bond-style stories the villain always captures Bond's most recent love interest. Because sure, we get that every agent in the secret list will be compromised if Bond fails, but by putting this other character in the villain's clutches we've made things personal. Our audience has seen the budding romance, and in the books (as opposed to the movies) we know that if she dies, then a part of what makes Bond a person will die with her.

That isn't to say you can't make the stakes bigger; you just have to stop before it gets to that too-big moment. For instance, you could take what was a hunt between a detective and a terrorist cell, and turn it into a gas attack that could kill an entire neighborhood. Maybe even wipe out a small city. You could also take a cult that had threatened a region, and make their victory something that would allow them to overthrow an entire government. Will this effect the rest of the world? Absolutely. Will our protagonist die? Most likely. But there will be events that happen after their failure, and the fact that someone else could pick up the ball that they dropped makes the stakes feel more concrete.

I'll let Trope Talk hammer the point home.

So, to wrap up, there's nothing wrong with raising your stakes. And, if there are multiple worlds in your story, you could even pick off one or two of them as a consequence of failure. However, it's important not to go over that line if you want to keep your audience from losing their firm understanding of what's at risk. Because when you threaten to end it all if your protagonist fails, that almost guarantees their success. Especially if  you're planning out a series. You can't blow up the world if there are six books after this one, and that's not a statement you can walk back once you've said it out loud.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing piece. Hopefully it was helpful, and it got the wheels turning in your heads. If you'd like to see more of my work, consider checking out my Vocal archive. To keep up on all my latest updates, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Or just Buy Me A Coffee! Either way, there's a free book in it for you as thanks for your help.

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