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High Stakes

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Apr 28 2018 · 236 views

Essays, Not Rants! 318: High Stakes

For a reason that can be tracked back to one specific thing that won’t be discussed due to spoilers, I’m thinking a lot about stakes. There’s this idea in a lotta stories that really good stakes are “will they die?” It was Game of Thrones’ modus operandi in the early seasons, and it was the explicit reason why Chewbacca was killed in the first book of the New Jedi Order book series. The logic makes sense enough, if there’s the chance that anyone can die in any moment of peril, all of them will be high stakes. The highest of stakes.

But on the flip side, constantly having high stakes like that also tends to lead to a fatigue of it all. When you’re always worried someone’s gonna die, you sometimes stop getting attached to characters. Why should I care about this new character we’ve introduced if we don’t know how long he’s gonna last? Though is that better than never worrying about your characters because there’s no way they’re gonna kill someone this important off, right? When Jack Sparrow gets eaten by the Kraken in Dead Man’s Chest, you don’t really care do you? After all, there’s a third movie coming out and you know he’ll be back. Han in Carbonite is an issue, sure, but he’s coming back for Return of The Jedi.

I tend to disagree. Knowing that someone survives, or someone having plot armor, doesn’t necessarily mean you stop caring for lack of stakes. There’s a bunch of fun in finding out how someone survives. Like in Return of The Jedi we know that Luke and Han aren’t gonna be eaten by the Sarlaac. But it’s still exciting because we wanna see them get out of the pickle. The question of suspense, y’know, the element that keeps us invested, isn’t "will they die?" but instead "how will they survive?"

When done well, the question of 'how?' can be a really interesting one. When Buffy dies in season finale of the fifth season of, well, Buffy (oh, spoiler alert) there’s no question that she’ll be back in season six. After all, she’s the titular character. The question is how will she come back — and what will the ramifications of that be?

I think these days, with stories like Lost and Game of Thrones big in the public consciousness, we can conflate the willingness of a story to kill of its characters with its quality. There’s a general animus towards fake-out deaths (like Jack in Dead Man’s Chest or, more recently, Wolverine in the comics), because why give us all that drama over a death that won’t stick? Why fear for a character’s life when we know they won’t die?

So again, I come back ton the question of how. The creation of an unwindable situation creates a narrative need for an ingenious way out. If the catharsis is to come, and in a good story the catharsis must be earned, then the way out’s gotta be a good one. Circling back to Jedi, the plan to escape Jabba’s clutches is so outlandish and unpredictable that it’s so much fun to see them escape. It doesn’t undo the drama of Han’s carbonite freezing detour; it’s another fun twist to the plot, another complication for the heroes to figure out. There’s a fun to it that’s a really good addition.

Like I said, I’m thinking about stakes and the cliffhanging suspense that goes with it. I don’t think knowing that things have to turn out alright, be it due to announced sequels or even the conventions of the medium makes things less dramatic or less fun. I really enjoy the romantic fun of finding out how protagonists escape from a situation. The trick is, I figure, to make the resolution interesting and not making it feel like a cop out. It’s the how that makes it interesting, so making the how count is what matters.

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Super Fighting Pahrak
Apr 29 2018 12:03 AM

I recently discovered it also helps if, even though you know that character's going to come back, they have a shockingly realistic response to their impending doom because they don't know they're going to come back.


Not referring to anyone in particular, of course.



    • 0
Apr 29 2018 09:30 AM

Han was going to die in Return of the Jedi though, before George Lucas decided against it.The only reason Harrison Ford came back for The Force Awakens was because he wanted to kill off his character like he originally was going to to at the end of the original trilogy.

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Jean Valjean
Apr 30 2018 06:13 PM

:kaukau: That's an interesting thought.  I'll admit that it's one of the reasons why I'm not terribly interested in Game of Thrones, since being willing to kill characters off doesn't translate to me as something that necessarily gets me more invested in the story.  I did, though, find Battlestar Galactica did this quite well.  You got invested in the characters, and you knew that some of them would survive until the very end, but you didn't know who and how many.  Some of the characters who you legitimately thought would last until the end didn't, and I think that it helped that by the time many of these died, they went through legitimately interesting story arcs.  I also think that it was pretty helpful that whenever someone died (or a large group of people died), you ask yourself "How does the last remnant of humanity come back from that particular loss?"  It was pretty cool...until that season finale.


With regards to the spoiler stuff...yeah, I don't necessarily feel the stakes.  With that having been said, the challenge of overcoming the particular conflict you're talking about still leaves quite a few questions and a lot of speculation, which people find all sorts of entertaining.



    • 0
May 01 2018 11:35 PM

I recently discovered it also helps if, even though you know that character's going to come back, they have a shockingly realistic response to their impending doom because they don't know they're going to come back.


Not referring to anyone in particular, of course.




That is a magnificent point that I'm mad I didn't think of. A good story drags you into its narrative such that you kinda forget about the real world. It makes you care even if you know there's gonna be a happy ending. You should still feel for Jaller's sacrifice the second time you watch MoL.

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