We have a story problem.
Not a grade school math class “story problem,” but a problem with our stories that is turning many of us into bad writers (with fleeing readers).
And by spending millions of our hard-earned dollars at the box office, we’re only have ourselves to blame.
The Problem with Marvel
I love comic book movies. I spend a lot of my money watching them.
And don’t get me wrong – comic book movies aren’t the problem.
Their viewers ARE.
Forgive me for saying it, but comic book-loving writers are perpetuating a storytelling flaw that will make readers vanish faster than one of Tony Stark’s flings.
See, every movie in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (MCU) aims to have “grand” or “epic” stakes. Their heroes are larger-than-life, mainly because the threats to Earth’s safety are equally massive.
And in practically each MCU movie, the world needs to be saved.
Writers – particularly unpublished or unread writers – watch movies of this variety. They may also love epics in different genres, like Lord of the Rings or Twilight. They long to tell stories with massive, weighty stakes.
They want their stories to make an impact.
But they miss the point with their “grand” attempts at storytelling, and miss the entire point of what “stakes” really are.
Readers don’t care about grand stakes.
End-of-the-world scemes are a dime-a-dozen nowdays.
So how can we make our stories matter?
What is a Stake?
It’s probably a good idea to know what we’re dealing with here.
Other than a handy weapon for dealing with vampires, a Stake is what a character puts at risk in order to get the goal.
Think stakes as poker chips. If you want to play, you have to risk losing something of value.
Poker chips are actually an apt metaphor for understanding the way stakes work, and how they can both help you or hurt you as a storyteller.
Imagine your character is sitting down to play poker.
His/her goal is to win some money.
Here are some good questions to consider as you imagine the “game” playing out:
- How much money must be won to “win” or “survive”?
- Why is he/she playing?
- What will be truly lost if he/she loses the chips?
- Against whom is he/she playing?
These questions represent the details of the story. What must be attained? Why? What will the protagonist lose if he/she doesn’t get the goal? Who is the antagonist?
But this isn’t quite enough to get the stakes right in your story.
Because there’s more information that will affect the reader’s feelings about the protagonist and his journey, and it has everything to do with the protagonist’s attitude about the money he/she brings to the game (or the stakes he/she brings to the story):
- How much money is he/she NOT putting on the table?
- Whose money is it? Is it donated? Someone else’s? Can someone help him/her “re-buy”?
- What would he/she use that money for if it wasn’t in the poker game?
- Who is standing around the poker table, watching the game?
- Who loves the poker player? Who does he/she love back?
Perhaps I’m losing you with the poker metaphor.
But these are the questions readers will be asking. They will no longer be “lost” in the story, but critiquing it as astute human beings who take deeply personal risks every single day.
In other words, your reader is a poker player, too.
This is perhaps the most artful part of storytelling. This is where you need to ask your beta readers specific questions about the believability and relatability of your protagonist’s motivation.
Readers will judge, and they will judge harshly:
- Is your protagonist on a path to wisdom, or a nose-dive of stupidity?
- Is your protagonist innately kind, or learning kindness? Or is he/she purely a jerk?
- Is your protagonist truly risking something, or wasting other people’s money/time?
- Is your protagonist fully committed, or half-assed (or therefore half-as-interesting)?
These aren’t gentle (or easy) questions to tackle – especially in the earliest phases of telling a story. You can’t possibly answer all of these from the get-to.
But as you draft and revise, you should start seriously considering them, because whether or not you do, your readers certainly will.
Readers don’t have time for irredeemably stupid / unwise / evil protagonists.
They just don’t.
Readers Quit When the Stakes Aren’t Personal
How many times can the world almost end?
Our story market is so over-saturated with exploding cities, crumbling buildings, and charging armies that readers and movie viewers are numb to it all.
And there’s a good reason for it.
How easy is it to empathize with 1 million people?
Seriously! Every time New York City gets blown to hell by aliens or robots or whoever (in a movie, mind you), I shrug and think, “Meh.”
How many times have you seen minions and henchmen and infantry get mown down like grass, only to sigh and check your phone?
Readers can’t empathize at that scale. It’s impossible.
But at a human-to-human scale, anyone can empathize.
All of the situations I’ve mentioned completely change when the storyteller makes the stakes personal.
Sure, I can’t meet everyone in the army. But when I know a guy or two with farms and wives and children to defend, I’m all in (Braveheart).
When I know the story of one man or one woman caught in the chaos of an alien invasion or robot/zombie uprising, there’s a better chance I can be hooked.
I have to care.
It’s the reason I hated (and didn’t finish) the second Transformers movie. Every stake in the movie was EPIC. It mattered to THE UNIVERSE.
But every individual was shallow and completely unlikable.
Story Secret #7: Craft Personal Stakes
This is where most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe get it right.
With few (frustrating) exceptions, Marvel is really good at making you care about their superhuman heroes.
Tony Stark (Iron Man) alienates people and suffers from a broken soul.
Steve Rogers (Captain America) sticks to his moral guns, even when the corrupt world around him won’t.
And Dr. Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk) is a broken, angry man, much like many audience members who transform into monsters when their own tempers are lost.
It’s great writing, and it’s the reason why the MCU has been going strong for over 10 years. Rather than focusing on villains and end-of-the-world stakes, Marvel chose to examine what makes their superhumans merely human.
And it’s great entertainment.
(Side note: Marvel is criticized for its weak villains. This is undoubtedly a byproduct of focusing almost exclusively on the heroes’ personal stakes. It’s a tiny loss considering the widespread fame, success, and profit reaped by the MCU!)
So how do we tap into the success of Marvel and many other successful storytellers?
Make it personal.
Here are 3 keys to keeping your stakes personal and powerful:
- The Goal is Essential
- The Goal is Urgent
- Pursuing the Goal Will Weaken/Expose the Protagonist
In other words, the stakes or risk will be deeply personal when the protagonist can’t live without the Goal, can’t wait for the Goal, and must confront his/her own demons in order to pursue it.
The first two are usually easy to figure into your story.
It’s the third that really separates the storytelling sheep and goats.
Expanding on this third point even more, here are some questions to spark your creative juices so you can add some killer (personal) stakes to your story:
- How can the pursuit be discomforting?
- Who else wants to the Goal for him/herself? Why?
- What won’t the Protagonist be doing while pursuing the Goal? Who won’t he/she be doing it with?
This is especially powerful when the weakening/exposure is connected to the protagonist’s past. Exposition is best delivered in the context of a goal’s pursuit – when it actually matters.
Readers gobble this stuff up, so long as you don’t jump-cut to a flashback in the middle of the present action. You usually don’t need half of the exposition you write.
But write it anyway so you can learn your characters’ stories (and what they have to put at risk), and then store it and smile when your rabid fans ask, “How much did you cut out?”
It’s time to put ALL your protagonist’s chips on the table.
It’s time for each and every chip to matter, to be life-or-death to the protagonist and his/her dreams.
It’s time to thrill your readers with a story with incredible stakes and massive consequences.
Because if the world ends for your protagonist, and the reader is there for the painful ride, the rest of the world might as well end, too.
Remember, you can discover all 10 Reasons readers quit your book, and the Story Secrets that will win them back, in my FREE new book, The 10 Reasons Readers Quit Your Book (and How to Win Them Back)!
Thanks for reading!
What do you think? Do Stakes have to be personal to matter to the reader?
Leave your thoughts in the Comments below!
Image Credit: Images Money, Creative Commons