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Ask an Editor: When the Stakes Go Too High

A little while ago I wrote a blog post about stakes and in the comments QueendSheena asked, “How do you know when the stakes are too high?”

Thinking about this question, I quickly realized that the answer was a bit too complicated for a comment, and decided I would need another blog post to attempt to answer it. Mostly because there isn’t a short quick answer. As with many things in writing, it’s all depends on the book, story and characters.

But, when you are looking at the stakes in your story and wondering if perhaps you’ve gone a bit too far and raised the stakes just a little too much, there are a few questions that you can ask yourself:

Are the stakes still personal?

Think about the huge battle sequence at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope. The Death Star is 15 minutes away from destroying the planet and completely defeating the last of the Rebel Alliance, and the only hope of stopping it is an epic space battle to get a fighter into position to make an impossible shot. That’s some pretty high stakes. And it might have been too much, except that the movie was smart enough to show us very clearly that Princess Leia, a character that both the audience and the other characters all love and care about, is on this planet that is about to be destroyed.

And what about Avengers: Infinity War, a movie where if the villain wins half of all life in the universe will be destroyed? This is a concept that is so big, it’s difficult to really understand or comprehend. And I’ve talked with several people who felt that it had gotten too big to really care about. I think that we, as audience members, don’t really understand what that means until the snap actually happens and we watch Spider-Man turn to dust. It’s only at that point that we really see and understand the cost of failure.

Are the stakes believable?

A parent is driving somewhere and their children are fighting in the back of the car, and the parent says, “Settle down right now or I will turn this car around.” Do the kids stop fighting? That probably depends on whether the kids actually believe the threat. Is the parent the kind of person who always follows through on what they say, or do they often threaten the kids with consequences that they don’t follow through with? And where are they going? Is it some place that the parent wants to or has committed to being at? If so, then they probably won’t actually turn the car around and the kid knows it.

The same issues apply to the stakes and consequences presented in your story. If you say “This must happen or the character dies” or “If we don’t do this the world will end” will I, as a reader, believe you? Am I afraid that the world might actually end or the character might actually die? Have you set up the potential for these consequences earlier in the story? Are these threatened consequences proportional to the rest of the story and the actions and decisions that the character has made thus far?

Do the stakes fit within the framework and scope of the story and genre as established thus far? Are they the logical result of the characters earlier actions and decisions?

When you are thinking about raising the stakes you need to think about what is the worst thing that can logically come out of the situation you have presented, but it needs to be something that is in some way connected to the characters and the world of the story.

If you are writing a high school rom-com, you can’t raise the stakes in the third act by suddenly having terrorists attack (unless the terrorists have been a threat the whole time). And while a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth is a perfectly valid plot point for a sci-fi story (see the movie Armageddon), it’s something that needs to be set up as a possibility and a threat early in the work, not thrown in a the last minute.

Remember, that the best stakes arise from the characters action and decisions—they need to be something that the readers can understand and expect and believe as a natural part of the story. If the stakes stop being personal, or are too obviously a deus ex machina at work in the story, then they might have risen a bit too high.

Got any questions about writing or publishing in general? Let us know in the comments!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Senior Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Dedicated fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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