The Case for High Stakes (in stories, that is) by David Macinnis Gill
The last time I visited the Nerdy Book Club, I wrote about the idea of leaving space for the reader. This time, I’m interested in the concept of stakes and why they are so important for the stories we read. How important are they, you ask (you did ask: I saw your lips moving)? They are so important that a story won’t succeed without them. The funny thing about stakes is that that can come in all shapes and sixes and can be physical or emotional.
For example, let’s look at The Hunger Games (because I’m sure you’ve read it; yes, you did, I saw your lips moving) by Suzanne Collins. The physical stakes are huge overall, but they start out personal for Katniss. If she doesn’t hunt, her family will starve. If she doesn’t take Prim’s place, her sister will surely die. If she doesn’t do well in the rankings, her chance of success will suffer. As the novels go one, of course, the stakes get higher and higher until the fate of the whole country rests on Katniss’s shoulders.
Here’s another example from a book I know you’ve read, Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. As the novel opens, Melinda has decided not to talk anymore. She has been raped by a classmate, and none of her friends understand the incredible trauma she’s dealing with. In Speak, no one is trying to spare someone’s life. No one is trying to win a life or death battle. No one is literally saving the world. Someone is, however, trying to survive her life and find the courage to speak out against the predator who raped her. Because the emotional stakes are so high, they are every bit as powerful and engaging as the physical ones in The Hunger Games.
What happens, then, to a story when the stakes aren’t high enough? What happens when the reader isn’t engaged with the plight of the characters? The short answer is, meh.
To illustrate this, I’m going to use two examples from television that I’ve written about before, the stories of lobsters and their far more exciting cousins, the crabs. The Discovery Channel has a show I’m sure you’ve seen or heard about, Deadliest Catch. It’s a running series about a fleet of real-life crabbers working the Bering Sea. The money’s is fantastic, the weather is wretched, and the chances of fishermen dying are pretty high—it has happened more than once on the show.
Discovery Channel has another series, Lobstermen, about a group of lobster fishermen off the coast of Cape Cod. The weather’s not as bad, the money’s not as good, and the chance of death and dismemberment is nothing compared to fishing the ice pack on the Bering Sea.
Both shows have the same production values, the same camera work, and the same scripting. There are boats and water and salty, tough guys breaking their backs to make a living. They show be equally entertaining, but they’re not. Not even close. Deadliest Catch. is much, much more engaging. And therefore is a more memorable, more moving narrative. The stakes are much bigger on Deadliest Catch. More money, bigger fishing pots, bigger waves, more ice, more things to go wrong, more men working on the edge to win big. You never know when something’s going to go terribly wrong or when one single pot will be worth twenty five grand. This is real life, but it’s also a reminder that what engages viewers is the same thing that engages readers.
So the next time a book doesn’t grab you, think about the stakes: are they emotionally or physically high enough? Do you care about happens? On the flip side, when a book does grab you, ask yourself the same questions, except wait until you’re done reading to go analyzing the narrative–fantastic reads will keep the pages turning and your lips moving until the very end.
David Macinnis Gill is the author of Soul Enchilada, Black Hole Sun, and Invisible Sun, all from Greenwillow Books. His short stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Crescent Review and Writer’s Forum. He is the Past President of ALAN (The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents) and an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
David has been a house painter, cafeteria manager, bookstore schleper, high school teacher, and college professor. Currently, he is an associate professor of English education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He now lives on the Carolina coast with his family, plus fourteen fish and two rescued dogs who don’t know how lucky they are not to be working a crab boat.