On the raising of stakes

I’ve been on vacation for the last week and a half, and while not attending to family obligations or cleaning the garage, my time has been dedicated to two things: Working on a small pile of short stories, and watching episodes of Torchwood on Netflix. (It is a vacation, after all.)

Both have got me thinking about the raising of stakes as a story-telling technique. Basically, raising the stakes just means you give your characters (and the reader) more reason to care. Evil robot landlord never fixes the leaky tap is one thing; evil robot landlord is part of an pre-invasion scouting party is another.

I’m trying to be more aware of what the stakes are, and whether they should be higher, in my own writing. Even though I’m writing genre stories, my plots tend to be more emotional-epiphany based, as in a lot of literary fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that — I’m much more interested in how people react to the evil robot invasion than in the evil robot invasion itself. But my plots could sometimes stand to be dialled up, I think.

Television is instructive on this aspect of story-telling, because stakes-raising is so integral to the way so many episodes and seasons are plotted. I can almost hear the writers saying, Okay, we had him kill and eat his grandmother at the end of Act 1, so, in Act 2 we ‘re gonna need something bigger.

They do this really well, the TV writers, and that’s one of the reasons we watch. But sometimes it just gets ridiculous. When the writers keep dialling up the stakes, they risk deadening the impact. Sure, sometimes a Doctor Who storyline has to be about whether the Doctor will be able to save the universe from collapse. But if every episode were, we would just stop caring. Most of my favourite Doctor Who storylines are actually the smaller ones, the ones where the threat to humanity is either not present or backgrounded.

The other problem is that when writers keep raising stakes to ridiculous levels, the writers themselves become more visible to the reader/audience. This is my problem with Torchwood, the Doctor Who spinoff, after about the middle of the second season. When you’ve almost killed your characters and the whole human race a few times, it gets harder and harder to dial up the stakes. And when you keep bringing them to the brink of death (or beyond), and then bringing them back in the nick of time using “handwavium”, well, then when you decide to actually kill off the characters it no longer rings true. The writers have already shown themselves to be omnipotent over and over again. They can get us out of any fix. They always have. So why not this time?

When a character does finally die, after several unlikely rescues, it feels to the audience like murder-by-writer. We know, by then, the writer’s just messing with us, because those stakes need to be dialled (okay, bad metaphor but you know what I mean), or because the actor’s leaving the show. We see the man behind the curtain, and we’re pissed off at him, because hey, we liked that character.

It’s not just a genre-TV problem. I stopped watching House because the writers just couldn’t be content with having him, you know, solve mysteries and save lives and try to behave like a human being while battling chronic pain and addiction. That just wasn’t enough after a few seasons. So they started having characters do crazy things, even sent House to prison just to mix it up.