Upping the stakes in stories aka Shit That Is Scary

So I was doing my homework and looking up ‘stakes’ for stories.

No, not that kind of stake! The literary kind!

What I like to know about story-writing components is the most basic ‘for dummies’ version of things. Stakes, as it happens, is very wide open to interpretation and thus finding a ‘for dummies’ version turned out to be more difficult than anticipated.

I did manage to narrow down my search and here’s the first example:

The What And Why of Writing: Stakes – My Book Therapy

I liked the article, it kept things simple and broke them down easy but it didn’t go into details.

To my frustration, many articles continued into ‘how to’ with raising stakes but no further examples  of what these might entail so I’ve had a quick look through some popular stories.

I figure Buffy makes a good example. Buffy had pretty clear stakes, particularly season five. You’ve all seen Buffy, right? Well, it’s been thirteen years so I’m blundering ahead.

Buffy had a season arc and what could arguably be called a series arc given that series creator Joss Whedon had Buffy mapped out for five years and could have made a clean – if heartbreaking – exit with Buffy’s death in the end.

The stakes began with giving Buffy something to lose – Dawn, her sister. That would be her private stake. As the narrative pointed out, Buffy’s preservation of Dawn was preservation of self, Dawn was all the things she loved about herself and wanted for herself. Buffy’s relationship with her slayer aspect was not as important to her as her preservation of self and it was told over and over again in many ways that previous slayers opted out of the slayer life by sacrificing themselves to get away where as Buffy maintained a balance that had given her strength. Giving up on Dawn, thus herself, would have been the suicide to end it all. What Buffy did in the end was a true sacrifice because she could have just thrown Dawn overboard.

Alongside her realization that she was prepared to live more than she was prepared to die was her public stake – doing her job. Buffy embraced her slayerhood to the point that she spoke of herself as The Slayer instead of just ‘the slayer’ or ‘a slayer’. By this stage we know she is not the only slayer and Faith’s current slayer status aside, just like Catherine the Great was referred to as Catherine Le Grande in the masculine, turning her name into a title, so did Buffy take for herself the title of The Slayer as opposed to ‘slayer’ as her role or occupation. Doing her job wasn’t about duty anymore. Even Glory’s increased threat resulting in Buffy being forced to up her game didn’t account for Buffy’s own embrace of her slayerness. Her place in the world as The Slayer was more than her life or her actions, she embodied it to her core as though she was born to it. Yes, she was born to it but the inherited responsibility was hers to discard when Kendra and later, Faith, arrived. Though she opted out from a sense of duty on those occasions, in season five she really gave it her all, even while things collapsed around her.

Finally, the ultimate stakes. Save the world.

So, in relation to stakes, if Buffy had died or quit at any given point, what would the result have been?

In the vacuum of her exit, Dawn would have been the first casualty. Dawn depended on Buffy, her role as the key was crucial but Dawn herself, the character and the person would have been sacrificed at some point to save the world. Dawn’s death would have destroyed the power of the key. That is what made her stake personal.

The role of the slayer would have suffered. With the lineage now passed to Faith – serving a prison sentence for murder at the time – the obvious solution would have been kill Dawn, deal with Glory. Given Faith’s mental state she would most likely have been killed. Glory seems particularly unforgiving. Spike wouldn’t have been able to convince her that Glory and Ben were the same person (offering the ‘kill Ben’ solution) because she’d probably stake him at the earliest opportunity. Let’s face it, he was of little use to anyone in the early stages of the season.

And the world might have been saved or Glory could have killed everyone, taken Dawn and bled her out to end the world. Heroes could have stepped up but let’s not forget the serendipitous luck that gave Buffy her edge – the Troll-God’s hammer, the robot distraction and Willow. When they put Glory on her back it was Giles who saved the world by murdering Ben. If none of those things were in place, the luck that saw them to the finale would have been a lot more convoluted.

So in terms of stakes, its not so much WHAT they are as how they apply to the hero in question.

I started looking for things that would make good stakes. I started with fears and gave up. Stakes aren’t fears, stakes are gains or avoidance of losses. Driving a car down a bumpy road to get your pregnant wife to the hospital at night, you have stakes. One, your car. It’s night, what if you hit an animal or damage the car? You lose a financial asset. Two, the well-being of your wife, if she’s in labor then she is in pain, uncomfortable and I daresay unhappy. Three would be your family. The unborn child, the person you love… it’s a big, public ultimate stake. If you think there’s a chance you can deliver a baby in the back of a car that’s just had the front-end caved in by a 6-foot roo then you’re not doing so badly. If you know the baby is breach and your wife has started bleeding bright red blood or has a severe injury then the stakes are pretty darn high and its all tightly connected… if the car is intrinsic your livelihood then you’re trying to save a family you’re going to struggle to support.

Fear of losing your wife, child and income are pretty high stakes but the stakes themselves are losses.

Now that I’ve figured that out, I hope my insight will be useful to someone else.

Happy writing!

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