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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