How To Raise The Stakes In Your Story Without Wrecking Your Characters

TVWriter™ has always had a soft spot for Charlie Jane Anders, and there’s no question why: She’s absolutely the best person on the interwebs writing about science fiction today. It’s lucid thinking and prose like this that make her a gem:

by Charlie Jane Anders

stakes-and-thorns-dan-latourThe best science fiction and fantasy stories are impossible to tear yourself away from — and often, that thrilling sense of momentum comes from the sense that the danger to the world keeps getting bigger and scarier. But how do you raise the stakes without sacrificing your characters?

This is a huge challenge — we’ve all come across stories where fully-fledged three-dimensional characters get weaker, and less believable, the more massive the scope of the threat they’re facing becomes. The only antidote to this is twofold: to raise the stakes in a way that stays grounded, and to stay focused on your characters, even as the plot ramps up and up.

And before we go any further, let’s just stipulate that there’s nothing wrong with raising stakes — in fact, I’m a sucker for stories where someone saves the world. You can never save the world too often, in my opinion. But a person saving the world is always more interesting than a one-dimensional walking plot device saving the world.

In the context of a story, “raised stakes” often means “increased scale” — and as you pull back, details inevitably become smaller. Including your characters, who are suddenly dwarfed by the earth-shattering, unimaginable humongous, situation they’ve found themselves in. It’s hard to keep your characters in the foreground and, say, a 200-mile-tall planet-buster bomb in the background.

The only solution is not to pull back, as much as you can avoid it. Your characters can only take in as much sensory input as they can take in, and staying close to their perspective means we only glimpse the astonishing size of whatever they’re up against. (As a bonus, if you’re doing something that requires VFX instead of just words on a page, I guess this could be a money-saver.)

And you should never understimate the “fog of war” thing — the exact details of the crazy space battle or magical apocalypse may only become clear later, once the radioactive pixie dust settles. In fact, a situation where your characters have perfect information about everything that’s going on is less believable, and I always find my credulity strained by too much precision. As much as storytellers love the “ticking time bomb,” the higher the stakes go, the more I appreciate hearing things like “I don’t know how soon this is going to explode, but it looks like soon.”

Also, if your story takes place in a world with cable news or other mass media, then you can lean on that somewhat — the media has long experience at taking huge, terrifying events and making them seem somehow distant and kind of abstract, while also weirdly intimate.

Read it all at io9