It’s a basic rule of storytelling: the stakes get higher as the story goes forward. But how do you do that? How do you know what’s good escalation and what’s just skipping all the necessary build up? What should you do when you’ve escalated as far as you can without breaking the story? Listen to this week’s podcast and the answers will be, if not revealed, at least mulled upon.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
The Belgariad, Vol. 1 (Books 1-3) by David Eddings
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
The Hunger Games (Book 1) by Suzanne Collins
The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards, Book 1) by Scott Lynch
Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Mayor from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The Ember Island Players from Avatar: The Last Airbender
Generously transcribed by Perspiring Writer. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast, with your hosts: Oren Ashkenazi, Mike Hernandez, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: Today’s episode is brought to you by our sponsor: Kathy Ferguson, a professor of Political Theory in Star Trek.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is…
Chris: And here, we are going to talk about [spooky voice] escalation…
Oren: Well, that escalated quickly. [rimshot] [Chris laughs]
Mike: No buildup at all.
Mike: Just straight to that.
Chris: That was poor escalation.
Oren: I just got it out of the way right- immediately. Just, right to the big joke. [Chris laughs] Which is an example of terrible escalation; if you just like, immediately throw out the biggest thing you’ve got.
Chris: Where are we going to go from there, Oren? How could this podcast get more awesome now that you’ve used the bad pun?
Oren: Well, we could just throw in more bad puns. That’s how some stories do it. Like, that was Voyager’s strategy- [Chris laughs] -when like, they hit a point in Voyager where they could stand toe-to-toe with the biggest, meanest Borg cube around. And so, the solution after that was just, ‘more Borg cubes!’ And it was like, ‘okay, I guess that’s one thing you could do.’
Mike: I remember being in middle-school when that was first airing and seeing that they were- that in the previews, that they were going to be introducing a Borg sphere. I’m like, ‘oh my God, that must be even more terrifying!’ And then it’s like, ‘oh, actually, it’s a tiny scout ship.’ Well, now I’m disappointed. [laughter]
But that was something they actually did right in escalation, because they introduced something small that was not- had not been previously terrifying to even the Enterprise, and then it’s like, ‘here, now we can have something that is a reasonable challenge to build up from.’
Chris: So, I think it’s worth de-escalating, unfortunately, to talk about what escalation is and why we need it and all those other things like that.
Oren: I’m unconvinced, Chris. Explain it to me.
Mike: I think we maybe don’t need it. Maybe we could just have the same level of threat at all times. [Chris laughs]
Chris: So, escalation is typically an increase in the story’s intensity that happens from the beginning up until the climax, which is the highest point of conflict and general intensity of the story. And we need it just because, novelty fades, and so, in order to keep the story continually entertaining and interesting, the intensity has to increase.
It has to increase the more things are generally the same. So, if things change, and otherwise novelty is added, escalation becomes less necessary, whereas it’s more necessary the more you are dealing with the same kinds of conflicts and problems.
Oren: Escalation is actually one of those things that new writers kind of do without thinking about it. I think a lot of new writers realize just from reading other books and watching television shows that, as the story goes forward, things should get more dangerous.
And they don’t always know what that’s called or think about it consciously, but even looking at a bad episode of television, there’s generally a trend upwards, in terms of how dangerous things are, either threatening physically, or if it’s a drama, threatening emotionally. Just up the stakes as you go.
Chris: Yes. And generally, movies are very good at escalation; it’s actually hard to find a movie that doesn’t escalate, and lots of people have seen movies, and so, I think a lot of people do sort of instinctively know that they need to make their climax the most epic. But there’s just some things that can go wrong in that process, unfortunately.
And as we just talked about, probably one of the biggest things is escalating too quickly; not because it’s a problem to have exciting things happen in the beginning of your story, but because it’s really hard to follow up. What do you do next?
Oren: This is one of those things that makes the later Matrix movies so terrible, right, is- Neo becoming the One at the end of the first Matrix is great, for the end of the first Matrix. And then, when we start the next Matrix, there’s really nowhere to go from there, and they try by multiplying Agent Smith by a million times. And it’s just boring, and there’s no threat.
But you told us last movie that when he became the One, he was basically invulnerable, and now you’re telling us that he has to fight things. It’s too late for that.
Mike: They fell into the trap of the ‘Conservation of Ninja’ trope. Which is where- in a show where the protagonist has to fight one ninja, that ninja is a deadly threat, and then, in another episode, they have to fight 50 ninjas, and those 50 ninjas are the equivalent level of threat to that character.
Or they could do it in reverse; 50 ninjas, they’re dispatched relatively quickly, and then the fight with the one boss ninja is equally difficult, and that’s- the same thing happened with Agent Smith in the Matrix.
Chris: Yeah, it happens a lot when somebody writes a single work or a series without thinking about the next, and then they have to write a sequel. They weren’t planning for that, so they weren’t planning the escalation to happen through all of those works, and then, for the second one, they don’t know what to do.
Another thing that happens is doing a kind of reveal, where ‘you thought you caught the big bad guy, but really, that person was just a pawn. This is the big bad guy.’ And changing antagonists is a good way to refresh the conflict, but that just cheapens what the audience already consumed, the part of the story that they already went through.
Oren: Well, it’s one of those things that you have to set up for. And you can do it ahead of time; you can hint that there’s someone else on behind the scenes and build expectation that way, or you could do what The Dark Knight Rises did and have Batman’s villain change from a superpowered murder-machine to a normal woman who had no martial arts training or anything, and it just felt like Batman was being kind of a bully.
‘Now you fight Normal Woman!’ ‘Does she have powers?’ ‘No, she has no powers. Just fight her.’ And it’s like, ‘okay. She died, I guess.’
Chris: That used to happen in- I read some series by David and Leigh Eddings, and they used to just- like, they have a couple series that are- they have the same heroes. Where they’ll have a series of five and a sequel series of five with the same characters, and it’s like, ‘they fought and defeated an evil god!’ ‘Turns out, that evil god was not actually the real evil god controlling everything; there’s a new one.’
Oren: Oh, right. Are we talking about the Belgariad series? Did they have more than one of those? Cause they’ve got the Belgariad series and then the sequel one, right?
Oren: Malloreon or something.
Chris: And then they have another- they are very formulaic. They pretty much do the same thing over and over again. The next series was like, the Elenium and the Something. And it was a set of three and another set of three.
Oren: I didn’t realize they were repeat offenders. [laughs]
Chris: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Unfortunately, their work just seemed to get more formulaic as they continued writing. I haven’t read their work in a while; maybe it got better.
Mike: So, Oren, you mentioned foreshadowing ahead of time. To give a bit of solid advice on that, one thing that tv series often do, because they have to set up for long arcs, and if they’re doing things correctly, setting expectations for increasingly powerful villains; where, there’s one master villain, and you get a scene or two from the perspective of the villains early on, where it’s like, ‘Lord, let me destroy these interlopers.’ And a bunch of lieutenants are fighting over the privilege of going after the protagonists.
So, you know that ‘okay, the first person we see is just one of many lieutenants of the big bad.’ And so, we’re going to get increasingly more powerful stage bosses as we get toward the final boss.
Oren: Probably the most well-known example of that is going to be Empire Strikes Back, where they introduce Palpatine. This was actually a surprise, for the most part. In Star Wars, we had heard that there was an emperor, but we didn’t know anything about him other than that. We knew he was an emperor and that he had dissolved the Senate.
And then in Empire, we see him on a holoprojector, and we see him giving Darth Vader orders, and we’re like, ‘okay, this guy’s pretty serious.’ And that builds up for him being the actual antagonist of Return of the Jedi, and he’s actually a reasonable antagonist, because we have had our expectations built up of him. We don’t feel cheated that Darth Vader’s not the main antagonist of Return of the Jedi anymore.
Chris: Cause we knew he wasn’t the most powerful antagonist in the first place, cause we at least mentioned that there was somebody above him in the first movie, right?
Mike: And in the first movie, we see him taking orders from Grand Moff Tarkin, who is killed on the Death Star; but even when he took orders from Tarkin, he never bowed to him or gave him the reverence that he’s clearly giving the Emperor in Empire Strikes Back. Which immediately conveys that this is someone so powerful that even Vader kneels before him.
Chris: When I’ve seen it done poorly, it’s always treated as like, a reveal.
Chris: The heroes are like, ‘oh my gosh, we didn’t actually defeat this thing.’ And yeah, so it has no foreshadowing and really comes out of nowhere. It’s worth mentioning that there are some stories that have lower escalation that works out okay, and it’s generally when those stories are more episodic.
An easy comparison is just, if you look at a normal tv series, there are some episodic shows, and they generally don’t have a lot of escalation, except for like, maybe the finale of a season. So, for instance, Star Trek: TNG does it, like- each episode escalates because it’s on the same plotline, but because it’s episodic and there’s different plotlines for each episode, over the season, it doesn’t actually escalate very much.
Oren: Right. The trick there is that they have to be dealing with different kinds of problems. That’s the reason why I specifically brought up Voyager as a bad example, because- Voyager, actually, is also very episodic. Towards the end, they get a little bit of an arc, but it’s a very episodic show.
But because we see that Voyager, in one episode, is good enough to take on a Borg battleship- and not win, but also not get wiped off the map. We then have other episodes where they fight much smaller, weaker ships and are not able to completely destroy them, and it feels cheap. It’s like, ‘how come they were so strong an episode ago, and now they’re not?’
Chris: Right. If all of the conflicts are ship-to-ship battles, they’re still going to lose novelty unless it escalates.
Oren: Whereas a show like Supernatural- for the first two seasons, anyway, it gets weird after that; but for the first two seasons, they didn’t really have a whole lot of escalation either. It was- every new monster they fought was basically a puzzle that they had to solve. ‘How do we hurt this one?’ Was sort of what they did every time.
And in the case of a monster that they already knew how to hurt, they would throw in some kind of emotional complication. Like, they’d do that with ghosts; cause, they defeat every ghost the same way, but there’s always some weird emotional drama that’s going on with the ghost, so they have to deal with that next time.
So, until the later seasons where they started dealing with various forms of apocalypse, for the most part, there was not a lot of escalation. It was like, ‘so this week we’re fighting a weird ancient god, which is maybe more dangerous than the thing we’re fighting next week,’ but you deal with it in such a different way that it doesn’t really feel repetitive.
Chris: And a travelogue would work largely the same way, where- like Gulliver’s Travels. The whole point is, he’s visiting different really weird societies, and each one has its own escalation. But because they’re so different, and they’re introducing their own novelty, they don’t need to escalate from one to the next as much.
I mean, with that kind of story, it’s still good to have a climax that is of higher intensity than the rest of the story, but the escalation is less important, because there’s a continuous novelty that’s being added through these changes that are happening in the story.
Mike: Angel actually followed the exact same formula as Supernatural in that, in the early seasons, it was- every monster is a puzzle that they have to figure out how to beat, with some interspersing of a larger arc that slowly escalated and kind of lurched forward periodically every few episodes. And then, as they got towards the end of the run, it started to be much more of a story arc that was slowly building every episode.
Oren: One way that you can escalate, other than building up your bosses- or your villains, as it were. Because that’s a problem that a lot of shows have, where you can only build the villain up so big before it starts to escape the confines of the story. Another option is to weaken your protagonist, to deprive them of something that they had. And that will make a similar or even a smaller threat much worse.
That is what Naomi Novik does in the Temeraire books. Because they have the constant threat of Napoleon to deal with, and it starts off with Napoleon getting stronger, but then, in the later books, some stuff that I won’t spoil happens that really weakens their side. And so, Napoleon’s strength hasn’t changed, but they’re much weaker and they have to try to fight him with much fewer resources.
And that is a very effective escalation, cause it’s like, ‘man. Napoleon actually won at the end of the last book, and that was when we had all this stuff. And now, in this new book, we don’t have that stuff anymore, and we have to fight him again.’
Chris: I think Lord of the Rings is a good example of escalation. Yeah, Lord of the Rings, little slow at the beginning, but it does that sort of nice, slow buildup, and Tolkien uses a variety of tactics. And one of those is exactly what Oren said, where you can weaken the heroes or the hero; in this case, that would be Frodo choosing to go off by himself- just with Samwise.
I mean, they lose Gandalf first, but then he just goes off on his own. So, he loses most of the strength he has. You can also just add more problems or more antagonists, like Saruman turning against the party. Usually, what you have for escalation when it raises is that you have higher stakes. That’s the most common thing.
At first, the stakes are, ‘Frodo is just trying to get away from these creepy people in the Shire.’ Only later do you learn that ‘oh, the entirety of Middle-earth is at stake here.’ And so, that’s one of the most common ways that you raise intensity. So, just having those kinds of bigger consequences.
Another way to raise intensity is add a deadline. This is why, in Star Trek, so often they’re like, ‘oh no, in this much time, this horrible thing is going to happen; the particles are going to increase and then the crew will die in exactly three hours, even though it’s not even realistic that something would happen right on time.’
Oren: That they know exactly when it’s going to happen? [Chris laughs]
Chris: It’s because simply giving that kind of deadline just raises the intensity.
Oren: It’s easier to have ‘at the count of zero, a bomb will go off’ than ‘over the next five hours, people will slowly start dying of radiation poisoning.’ [Oren and Chris laugh] One of those is just much more dramatically convenient to build a story around.
Lord of the Rings is actually interesting, because it- especially after they get to Rivendell and it’s revealed exactly what’s going on with the ring, and that’s when we get the full message of like, how dangerous the ring is and what’s at stake.
After that, one of the tricks that Tolkien uses to further escalate is to actually go smaller; where, it stops being Middle-earth at stake- although, that remains; it feels immediate because what becomes more at stake is Frodo’s soul, basically, as he battles the ring’s corruption over him, and of course, his attempts to redeem Gollum, which is one of the best stories in fantasy, that particular element of The Lord of the Rings is the relationship that Frodo has with Gollum.
Chris: Yeah, that’s definitely very interesting. And escalation, again, it doesn’t usually happen super evenly; it’s usually kind of, jumps up and then resting periods, but a lot of times those resting periods are a transition from a focus on the external conflict, fighting the bad guys, to the internal conflict, like the hero’s own struggle.
And I think that’s kind of an example of that. Things get less exciting on the outside, but then, what you’re doing is adding novelty by tackling a different kind of conflict instead. Another example that people will probably be familiar with; in Harry Potter, in the fifth book, there’s an intense moment where Harry sees Arthur Weasley get attacked by a snake, and that’s a moment of high intensity.
And then he goes and has Christmas with the Weasleys. That’s like, ‘oh, well that’s a leisure period.’ But during that time, it’s actually transition for Harry to worry about him going bad, and deal with the emotional consequences of that intensive experience. So, when you’re looking at the overall escalation, it’s kind of a pause in escalation, but again, it’s actually adding variety and just tackling a different kind of conflict before escalating the external conflict again.
Oren: You have to be careful with that, though. I don’t know how this was handled in the book, cause I didn’t actually read the seventh book; but in the seventh movie, the much ragged-on camping sequence is just too long. Like, it’s supposed to do that, where it’s like, ‘we’re going to take a pause from the immediate danger and kind of reflect on the consequences.’
But it just goes for so much time that it kind of feels like the conflict stopped mattering, cause they apparently had all this time to go camping in the woods. I can only imagine it was longer in the books, cause generally things get shorter in movies. But maybe the movie made it too long.
Chris: It was- it was long in the books. And I personally find that it is difficult to- and this is kind of getting into muddlesome middle issues. It is difficult to retain interest in parts of the plot where the main character feels lost and isn’t sure what they’re doing. You want a main character who has a pretty strong goal to strive for.
And when the main character’s just like, ‘I don’t know what to do now,’ a lot of times the plot kind of gets less intense and flounders as a reflection of that. And I think that’s part of what happened there.
Oren: Right. Well, in the movie- and again, I don’t know for sure how this worked in the book, but in the movie, when they got to the end of the camping sequence, all I could think was like, ‘what would have happened if we had just skipped right to the end of this? Like, what would we have lost?’
And as far as I could tell, the answer was ‘basically nothing.’ We would have- there was one kind of neat moment where Harry and Hermione have a little bit of bonding over some music; that part was cool, and I would have been sad to lose that. But everything else in the camping sequence, you could have just ditched, and the movie, I think, would have been fine.
Chris: Well, Tolkien is also known for doing those kinds of scenes and having that kind of like, ‘lost and things long and dragging out’ feeling in his books. My guess- I think sometimes it’s intentional and the idea is to make the challenge feel very daunting and the main character feel very small, and they’re sort of lost in this big dark world. I still wouldn’t recommend it- [laughs] -in either work, but I think sometimes it’s intentional.
Mike: I found what you were saying about the protagonist being unsure, dragging down the intensity, in the final Hunger Games book. That had a big effect, because on the one hand, things are definitely increasing in intensity and the stakes are now global; the world, Panem, as we know it is at war, and hundreds of people are dying on a daily basis in these battles, but Katniss doesn’t really care.
She’s involved, but she doesn’t have clear direction, and so, while at the same time that the book is where it should be at the highest stakes, personal stakes are often kind of lacking in those same sequences.
Oren: That’s the exact problem with the third book of the Gentlemen Bastards series. Cause the second book- between the first and second has excellent escalation, because the first book is basically Ocean’s eleven in fantasy Venice. So, I liked it. I enjoyed it a lot. The second book is much better. The second book is like- escalates from that to basically a war.
And it’s like, a very nice escalation; it goes from knife-fighting in back-alleys to pitched battle. And it works super well, and the stakes are that, if the main characters don’t do this thing, not only will the city that they’re in be under the thumb of this authoritarian dictator, but they will also die, because they need to do what they’re doing to get the antidote to a poison.
So, you have the personal stakes of ‘they’re both going to die,’ and you have the greater stakes of ‘we will free this city by saving ourselves’ kind of thing. It works very well. And then in book three, the personal stakes are that ‘we might win this election that no one cares about.’ That like, literally no one in the book cares about this election. Except for people that have been mind-controlled to care about it.
And the actual stakes of the book are that like- that there’s a wizard civil war going on in the background. But neither of the main characters are wizards or even know about that. That’s like, a secret reveal at the end, that ‘by the way, while the main characters are doing this thing that didn’t matter, the wizards were gearing up for civil war.’
And it’s like, ‘I don’t care. None of the character that I’ve grown attached to are wizards, or really have anything to do with the wizards, so that stake doesn’t matter to me at all.’
Chris: So, other people often instinctively know from consuming stories that the external conflict has to escalate. Sometimes they miss out that the internal conflict should also escalate, and what that tends to translate to is the story…
For instance, the hero might find out that they caused horrible things, creating a lot of emotional intensity, or the hero is confronted with a really difficult decision, or the hero loses someone or something important to them, or something that has a lot of emotional impact and creates a lot of struggle internally for the hero should generally also be more common or happen near the climax, and that’s more likely to get left out.
Mike: Returning to the Jedi- [Chris laughs] -Episode Six does a great job of this. While Luke, the character that we’ve been following from the beginning and that we’re supposed to identify with the most; he removes himself from the greater conflict, which is escalating to its climax for the entire trilogy; the Rebel Alliance has finally gathered its fleet, more that just a motley assortment of starfighters, and are making an offensive strike on a superweapon that’s guarded by the entire Imperial fleet.
And Luke just decides to not participate in that. But the escalation works perfectly because the emotional setup for his conflict with Vader and the Emperor is there to make it- so that we’re deeply invested in his personal struggles that are happening, with the larger war highlighting everything that’s going on literally in the background, behind the Emperor through a window.
Chris: Yeah, that’s an excellent example of internal conflict going up and a climax that is very meaningful because- for character reasons. And it’s pulled off very well.
Oren: It occurs to me now that Empire Strikes back is weird in the way it handles its escalation from the first movie. Because the first movie, they fight a thing that blows up planets, and then in Empire, they’re just fighting regular spaceships. The Empire doesn’t have a thing that blows up planets anymore.
Although apparently the secret is that no one put an exhaust port weakness on the Star Destroyers. [Chris laughs] Cause if they had, then the Empire would have been in trouble. But as it was, somehow I think worked because- at the end of the first movie it’s like, the Rebels are super triumphant, and they’re like, ‘yeah, we blew up the thing,’ and we have the medal sequence where Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal for some reason. And that’s upsetting.
But in the beginning of Empire, they’re struggling with the cold. The planet that they’re on is kicking their butts. And so, I think that really helps set the stage; and then the characters spend almost the entire movie, in Empire Strikes Back, away from the Rebellion. Luke is off dealing with his personal demons on Dagobah, and then Han and Leia and Chewie and Threepio are in the Falcon by themselves cut off from any support.
Mike: Being pursued by the entire Imperial fleet.
Oren: Right. So, I think that those two things are what helped make Empire feel like an escalation, even though the stakes they were playing for were actually a lot smaller than they had been in the first Star Wars movie.
Chris: The focus was definitely changed; it wasn’t anymore about space battles between ships, it was on the struggles of individual characters. And Lucas let the Empire do a lot of damage in movie two, which- that actually established them as a threat by having them make an impact. Having Luke’s hand get cut off. Having Han frozen in carbonite. They actually did real damage, and that, I think, is what- a big part of what powered the escalation.
One of the biggest mistakes I think that people make is just to repeat the same thing over again. I think this happens, again, when they don’t know how to build further. When they’ve escalated too quickly, and they don’t know what to do again. Like, the Hunger Games; book one and book two both have a Hunger Games. I get that the premise of the series was about the Hunger Games but having book two of the Hunger Games series be another Hunger Games wasn’t really an escalation.
There were other things in there to add some of the escalation but centering around that in itself doesn’t add an escalation to the plot.
Mike: Arguably, the real escalation in there was the personal struggle of Katniss, because now she’s back in the Hunger Games, but this time she already has Hunger Games PTSD that she’s also fighting at the same time. So, it was a small escalation personally for her, but you’re right; as part of the larger story that’s being told, we’re back to the same story as last time in many ways.
Oren: Yeah. I just want to make sure everyone knows; never underestimate the capacity of just letting your villains win a major story arc to count for escalation. That’s hugely important, because if you just keep raising the threat, but your characters have always defeated the threat before then, you can only do that so many times before the audience just figures, ‘well, they’ll beat this one too,’ right?
Like, ‘they said the last one was real big, and they beat that, and the one before that and the one before that.’ So, if your villains don’t occasionally win in long stories, then it doesn’t matter how much you raise the stakes, cause your audience will just know that you’re going to win regardless.
Chris: And this is the big problem with having a villain that is trying to kill the hero from the beginning, is that the villain will try to kill the hero. That’s not a stake that’s acceptable for them to win in the beginning of the story, so they fail to kill the hero.
And then what usually happens is, ‘this was a life-or-death struggle, so now, where do we go from here? Oh! We’ll just have the villain try to kill the hero again!’ And it’s- again, repeating the same thing over and over, and the villain just gets Team Rocket Syndrome.
A good example of this is Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer season two, where he comes in at the beginning of the season, fails to kill Buffy, and then he just- he’s like, the lead villain, but it’s never going to work out again. And then he just tries to kill her again. It’s repetitive.
Mike: He gets more vampires.
Chris: Eventually they do the right thing with this character. That is- when a villain starts to lose their fright value, and after trying and failing to kill Buffy, that’s kind of it for Spike’s fright value, you want to make them sympathetic instead, and that’s exactly the route they went. Even when he was still an antagonist in season two, Buffy ends up being his ally at the end of the season.
Mike: It helped that the actor was incredibly entertaining, so it was a character that the audience was able to get attached to. And if you don’t have a likeable villain, you can’t really do that.
Chris: Then you might as well just get rid of them and move on.
Oren: Well, that was what they did with the Anointed One, right? [Chris laughs] It was like, ‘okay, we’re done with this storyline.’ Whereas Spike hung on by like, the sheer nature of his charisma. He’s like, ‘yeah, I’ll fight Buffy again,’ and we’re like, ‘we know you lost the last five times, but you’re just so charming that I believe, maybe this time.’
Mike: Oh, I don’t believe it. I just like seeing you on screen, so I’ll tolerate you trying so that I can see more of your character. [laughs]
Chris: If you compare this to the villain in Buffy season three-
Chris: -The Mayor, who, his goal is not to kill Buffy. And so, he can actually stick around as a threat that builds up and actually escalates a little bit. I don’t feel like he’s that much of a threat through most of that season.
Mike: No; and he’s not trying to be.
Chris: He’s not trying to be.
Oren: So, this is relative, right? Let’s face it, none of Buffy’s villains are particularly good. Like, Buffy is good at a lot of things, but good villains is not one of them. And the Mayor stands out for being the best of a bad lot because, again, he is able to win sometimes. Not a lot, but he wins a couple times, which is more than you can say for basically any of the other villains.
Like, even Glory, who is probably the most powerful of the villains, and can theoretically knock Buffy around like a toy, Glory’s still not scary, because despite all of her power, the show keeps coming up with contrivances of how she can’t get what she wants. Whereas the Mayor is not actually that powerful, but he manages to pull off a few wins just by being sneaky. And it’s like, ‘oh, man. That’s weird. We haven’t seen that before,’ and we have not seen that since.
Chris: Right. And the stakes weren’t so high that the writers couldn’t let him win. It wasn’t going to end Sunnydale; it wasn’t going to kill Buffy.
Mike: And arguably, one of his biggest wins was simply getting Faith to change sides, which, I don’t believe was something he even planned to do from the beginning.
Oren: No. Faith came to him, actually, because Faith accidentally killed somebody who’s not a vampire, and so it doesn’t conveniently dispose of themselves- [Chris laughs] -and then kind of panics.
Mike: And so, that, in the same way that having a villain come over to the good guys can help escalate the story by bringing it to the next level, because now you have a larger team to face a larger incoming threat, having one of your members go over to the other side is a big deal as well, because they know all of the inside details on how the heroes operate, they have deep personal connections with them. Well, maybe not Faith cause she kind of pushed everyone away, but typically…
Oren: Yeah, getting a team member to switch sides can be a very effective form of escalation. It’s hard to manage, though, when it comes down to it. If your heroes and your villains are ideologically very far apart, it’s often difficult to have a believable switch. Faith, it works to a- to varying levels, cause Faith never really fit in on team Good Guy anyway.
There are stories where one of the characters does switch sides, and it just feels kind of forced. It’s like, ‘really? It doesn’t seem like you would switch your beliefs that far.’
Chris: It’s definitely easiest if they were a spy to begin with, cause then they were just pretending; you’re not actually having to push a character change. If you need to push a character change, you’ve got to give yourself time, because that does not happen instantly.
One thing that drives me nuts is all of the epic fantasy stories that go from a very small scale to a very large world scale. But they do that, not by raising the stakes like they do in Lord of the Rings, that small actions affect the entire world, but just adding in more plotlines to expand the scope of the entire book.
That actually makes things slower, cause now you’re switching back and forth, and each plotline is moving slower than before.
Mike: Conservation of plot. [Chris laughs] You can only have so much that you can spread around.
Oren: Well, that’s your classic worldbuilder problem, right? Where like, this person built this whole world and really wants to show it to you and convinces themselves that this character’s POV is necessary. And sometimes, in order to tell a complete story, another POV is necessary, but a lot of authors who are really proud of the world that they build convince themselves that a new one is necessary when it isn’t.
And that’s when you get series bloat, where we’re trying to raise the stakes by like, ‘here, now you get to see the point of view of this emperor across the sea,’ and it’s like, ‘I don’t care. What is he doing? Why is it important that he’s here?’
Chris: Maybe they’re- the whole world is at stake now, because you’re bringing in all these armies across the globe, but at what cost?
Oren: I mean, the last Game of Thrones book- and by now, the series is actually past this point by a significant margin, so if I cared, I could look up and see where this went. But I don’t.
At the end of the fifth Game of Thrones book, they introduced this new guy, this new supposed Targaryen heir that we promise has been around the whole time; you just haven’t heard of him. And like, he gets his own- the POV character for that isn’t actually the Targaryen guy; it’s his main guard dude who I also had no idea existed until now.
And it’s like, ‘oh, look, another Targaryen has raised the stakes,’ and I’m like, ‘no it hasn’t. The stakes are just as low as they were before because I don’t believe this guy is real. I believe you summoned him out of thin air to try to distract us from the Daenerys plot that we’ve all guessed is happening.’ [laughter]
Chris: And I think at its basis, escalation is about not disappointing the audience and continually making things better as the book goes and more engaging as the book goes. And so, there are other- some interesting things that are a little miscellaneous that relate to escalation, like- you don’t want to make a subversive twist at the beginning of your story and then have the rest of the story play out in a much more predictable, conventional manner.
Because by doing a subversive twist early, you’ve raised the audience’s expectations, and even if the intensity of the conflict rises, you’re actually disappointing them still. It’s also the reason why- there are many stories, like Harry Potter, for example, that get darker as the story goes on. But they never get lighter, because, again, darker means higher conflict, more intensity; and having a light, fluffy story after that is just kind of a letdown.
Oren: It feels weird, right? If you have your characters who are super serious, and then they go and do really non-serious stuff for more than like, a very short aside, it just doesn’t feel right.
Mike: You can have breathers, and particularly in television, as they get close to the series finale they’ll have an episode or two that are a little more lighthearted to give you a rest period and lower the stakes.
My absolute favorite is the Ember Island Players episode in Avatar: The Last Airbender, where they take a whole episode to do a not-quite-flashback episode, where instead of doing cuts from older episodes, they recreate it via a play that the main characters are watching, and it’s light and fluffy and goofy and none of the characters end up looking particularly good, and it’s just delightful.
Oren: You know, Legend of Korra actually had to do that with an actual clip show, because their budget got slashed at the last minute. And it actually worked really well; I was really surprised at how good their clip show was. Cause they added like, funny voiceovers and kind of silly-looking animation and made fun of the parts they didn’t do very well.
Chris: And put like, one person’s head on another person’s body, and just- [laughs]
Oren: And it was- when I first saw it was a clip show, I almost rage quit, cause I was just so upset at the idea of a clip show. But then I kept watching, and it was- actually, I think this made the show a little bit better, because it was- season four of Korra gets really serious business towards the end, and it was kind of nice to have the ‘let’s all laugh at some of the mistakes the show has made in the past’ moment.
Mike: That episode even escalated well, because it started with a very straightforward clip show format, with a little bit of lampshading and laughing at the mistakes the show made in the context of, ‘I can’t believe you, the character, did that. Or tried to have that romance.’ And it’s, as you said, the show making fun of themselves for trying to pair two characters.
But then, as it gets towards the end, they start going more and more off script, getting more and more ridiculous until the final person narrating is completely making up a new story, but they’re still able to recycle the old clips and then just change them slightly to go with his new, wacky narrative, with the conceit that he is a filmmaker- or a “mover-maker,” in The Legend of Korra.
And he’s making up a new story that will be turned into one of his movers, and Mako, the character with him, the entire time is like, ‘that’s not what happened!’ And he’s just like, ‘shh! Go with it. Just let me tell my story.’ [Chris laughs]
Oren: If you want another thing of trying to do something lighter that didn’t work at all; if you look at The Next Generation movies, they go from First Contact, which is like, ‘epic battle with the Borg for the survival of humankind,’ to Insurrection. Now granted, these movies do not have to be continuous, right? If you had done a different kind of story for Insurrection, it would have been fine.
But Insurrection is also a shooty-fight; it’s also a movie about fighting. But instead of fighting the Borg for the future of the Federation, we’re fighting these weird-looking guys named the Sona who have like, three entire ships. [Chris laughs] And like, we’re fighting them over this planet with the Space Amish, and somehow-
Oren: Yeah. And like, there’s a scene where the Sona ships are attacking the Enterprise, and the Enterprise is running from them. Last episode, the Enterprise led a fleet of ships against a Borg cube, and then destroyed a Borg sphere by itself. And in this episode, it’s running from two ships of aliens we’ve never heard of.
Not episode, movie; but it’s like, ‘what is happening here? Are these the same ships? Did they lose half their weapons between movies, and I wasn’t watching?’ [Chris laughs]
Mike: Look, they really haven’t recovered from losing two-thirds of their crew to the Borg. It’s just a skeleton crew there, they have like, ten people operating everything.
Oren: Again, if you want to reduce the stakes with a long, continuous story, you can do it as long as you add some kind of novelty, right? Have a different kind of conflict where we know that they have to employ a different skill set than the one they used last time to conquer the higher level of stakes.
Chris: New things to keep the audience entertained; that’s what this is all about, is making sure that the audience never feels let down after something they did that was cool previously when consuming the new material.
Oren: One place where escalation is particularly difficult, or at least it seems to be, is actually in roleplaying games. I’ve just noticed that the temptation to skip directly to what is the most epic thing is very strong in roleplaying games. And often, that’s good advice; you don’t want to fill your story with filler. But if you skip directly to the biggest, baddest thing you’ve got, then where do you go from there?
Chris: Especially if you’re trying to foreshadow it and then the players catch on that it’s there; they’re going to want to go straight for it with their swords raised.
Oren: Right, the players aren’t going to be well-behaved protagonists, and be like, ‘oh, that’s interesting foreshadowing. I guess we’ll wait and see how this turns out.’ [Oren and Chris laugh] They’re like, ‘there’s a thing? Let’s go get it. Do we know where it is? Let’s find out; I got this roll for finding things and where they live. Let’s do it.’
Chris: It also occurs to me that it seems like it would be hard to create increasing threats without accidentally killing the player characters, but I’m guessing a lot of that is fudged anyway.
Oren: Yeah, it’s a secret, is that most GMs, when they say they’re going to kill you, they aren’t. If they’re good. If they’re bad, they might. But most GMs who are interested in telling a story know that if they just randomly kill players- or kill characters, even. [Chris laughs] That will damage the story really badly.
Mike: Dear god, I hope game masters aren’t killing players. [laughter]
Oren: If you die in the game, you die for real! I mean, that’s- depending on the system, right? There are a lot of systems where if the dice go poorly, ‘oops, I just killed you, cause I rolled too much damage.’ Not all systems have that problem.
Oren: L5R is one, Dungeons & Dragons- Dungeons & Dragons is just like, ‘you failed your fort save? You’re dead now. Doesn’t matter how many hitpoints you had.’ But that happens a lot in various games like that. You get really good at the ‘hey, a thing you didn’t notice saves you.’ That is the go-to of GMs.
Mike: Or making sure you’re rolling behind the GM screen, so that they can’t see how much damage you actually rolled.
Chris: So, if your players have already fought an epic villain and defeated it, and you know that doing one that’s mechanically tougher for them to fight might just end up with a player character being dead, are there tricks for making it seem more epic than the last one?
Oren: I recommend prayer, honestly, at that point.
Oren: Basically. So, my general strategy on that is, again, to employ a different kind of challenge. If we’ve had a really difficult fight- regardless of if we’re using actual mechanics or not, even if it was just a fight that I narrated, I will usually try to switch things up and have it be, ‘okay, so this is a session where you have to deal with some petty politics in the town that looks to you for protection.’ That sort of thing.
And the problem there is that sometimes, your players aren’t interested in that; and unlike the protagonists, you can’t just write them to be interested in- [laughter] They might just decide, ‘I’d rather go fight another thing,’ and you’re like, ‘no, guys, you really don’t want to do that; it’s going to be boring,’ and they’re like, ‘I’m bored right now. I’m going to go be bored somewhere else.’
Mike: You just have to tell them that it’s an opportunity to make Profession skill checks. [laughter] And then they’ll jump at it. At least my players.
Chris: Spend all their time forging swords. [laughs]
Mike: ‘Yes, I want to use Craft (Weapons) to make weapons to sell.’ Like, ‘okay. You make 3d6 swords. You sell them for thirty silver each?’
Oren: I’ve found that when you’re planning ahead with roleplaying games, you don’t want to get too specific. Because you have living, breathing players who are making decisions in your story, and if you get really specific, it’s like, ‘well, that didn’t work out exactly how I expected it.’ So, that’s not going to work.
But if you plan general themes- I had two general themes in a big campaign that I ran a while ago: part one was dealing with an internal threat that was- the internal threat of their city; they were having to deal with sort of the rich elites who were causing problems.
And then phase two was- the external threat was having to deal the threat from outside the city, and that took more clear shape as the game progressed and I got more specific, cause I saw what the players were doing.
But that was what I started with, and that general theme kind of stayed true, and it was general enough that the players could go wherever they wanted and not leave it. I didn’t have to worry about them doing something that would make the theme no longer work.
So, that way- technically speaking, the end of the first part of that game had a much more difficult boss fight, as it were, than the end of the second one, because the end of the second one was all about making big decisions that would affect everybody. There wasn’t a lot of personal risk.
Whereas the end of the first one was like, ‘now you guys have to fight a really, really angry thousand-year-old elf, and he’s gonna kick your butt unless you shoot him real good.
Chris: Introducing novelty, it’s almost easier to switch it out from session to session than it is to try to make each session top the last one, epic-wise.
Mike: Right. If you just increase the difficulty of the monsters or NPCs that you’re creating, then it just turns into… a grind, really, and just purely combat. I do like your approach, Oren, and I use it more often than not.
Every now and then, I have done the exact opposite, in which I have an end goal in mind for the story, and then I overplan, in that I have a dozen different ways at which they could get at that end goal, and I plan out each of those- [Chris laughs] -so, there is a vast intercontinental network of railroads. [laughter]
But this takes a long time to prep, and it ends up with a lot of content that doesn’t get used. So, if you really like worldbuilding and campaign designing for its own sake, it’s a fun activity. If you’re trying on a short timeline to, effectively, put out a game that you can run, it’s not something I’d actually recommend.
But it does allow you to know exactly where things are going to end, and therefore, each arc leading up to that, you know about what power level you should be setting your monsters and villains at so that you don’t end up with the ‘miniboss ends up being much more powerful than the endgame villain that’s been pulling all the strings.
Oren: There are a couple of games out there that have mechanics robust enough to handle the escalation on their own. Torchbearer is one of those games, where- again, it’s not perfect, but the mechanics are very complete, and so there’s an interest involved with the players having to solve a much more mechanically difficult challenge that you set before them, in addition to whatever narrative challenges you come up with.
Just, dealing with a dungeon that has a hill giant in it instead of an orc as the final boss is a significantly different kind of threat, even though narratively, it’s the same thing. Because of the mechanics, it feels very different. There are not a lot of RPGs that have mechanics that good, but if you find one, that’s an option.
Chris: I haven’t played Torchbearer for a long enough campaign, but there’s also resources that you would run out of if you stayed in the caverns long enough.
Oren: Yeah, there is that. And then that becomes a different game of like- you can end up going into the dungeon, using up all of your torches and all of your food, and coming back out and realizing that you’re at a negative, and not having enough to replenish your supplies. [Chris laughs] And I have actually had players-
Mike: Torchbearer bankruptcy if you will?
Oren: I have actually had players who made a deliberate choice to avoid the more interesting and treasure-filled dungeon before them to go raid a much smaller dungeon, because they knew that they were losing food and torches every time they went into a dungeon, and they were like, ‘we need to get an easy dungeon that we can just knock over and get enough money to replenish our provisions- [Chris and Mike laugh] -before we take on a big one.’
Which is not something I’ve seen in any other game, right? I’ve only seen that happen in Torchbearer.
Chris: Well, speaking of game mechanics for escalation, we haven’t talked about Dread.
Oren: Oh, Dread’s interesting.
Chris: Dread is a story game- would you classify it as a story game?
Oren: It’s a story game.
Chris: It’s a story game where- the only mechanics are a Jenga set. In case somebody is not familiar with Jenga, it is a pile of thin blocks that form a tower, and it’s played by- people take turns taking blocks from not the top of the tower, and so the tower gets more and more unstable with the more blocks that are moved.
Every time you remove a block, you put it at the top. So, the tower keeps getting taller and less stable until, finally, when somebody removes a block, it falls over.
Oren: And so, the way that it works in the game is that whenever your character does something potentially dangerous, you have to remove a block; and if the tower falls, then your character also falls, and they are somehow consumed or driven mad or- something happens to take them out of the game at that point. And it is very effective in building tension and escalating. Every one you pull is harder.
It does have a potential weakness, that theoretically, you might have to do this four or five times, and it can feel time-consuming after a while. The first time you do it, it’s like, ‘this is crazy tense.’ And then it falls over, a character dies, and you’re like, ‘okay, now we have to do this again.’ You repeat the process. And by the third or fourth time you’re doing it, it’s like, ‘okay, just pick one near the bottom. Just knock it over already.’ [laughter]
Chris: The game does have the crazy ability to make you feel like the tower is going to fall over far before it actually does, which is definitely good for tension. I think a better game would be, just, all of the players die when it falls over- [laughs] -so you’re only doing it once.
Mike: Or maybe, you rebuild the tower, but it’s shorter, so it doesn’t take as long each time to knock it over.
Oren: Right. And there might be some rules in there about that. We were playing it with someone else who had read the rules. But the first time is definitely very effective, like, the basic idea is good. I think with a few tweaks you could make it work very well.
Mike: I also recommend playing in a dark, candlelit-only room, cause that will increase the mood of the horror story that you’re playing and the intensity. Cause you can’t quite see when it’s flickering flames that are your only illumination.
Oren: It makes it harder to pick out the right block. [laughter]
Oren: And I’m in favor of anything that makes the Jenga tower fall over faster. Or almost anything, I suppose. (Shake the table.)
Chris: But it goes to show that a game where the only mechanic is raising escalation does pretty well.
Oren: It does.
Mike: Any last remarks or stories you want to call out, that didn’t get mentioned?
Oren: Specifically, Deep Space Nine has really good escalation over a very long show. It starts with the Cardassians, upgrades to the Klingons, and then upgrades to the Dominion, and it feels very natural. It turns out it was not; the Klingons were added at the last minute. They did not plan for that.
Chris: I would not have known.
Oren: Ira Steven Behr had the idea because of a throwaway line of dialogue that one of the Founders had had in an earlier season about how the only threats left to the Dominion were the Klingons and the Federation. And he was like, ‘ooh, that means we should do something with Klingons.’ And they were like, ‘okay. I guess we’ll go with that.’
Chris: There were some very good writers on DS9.
Oren: There were; that just progressed very nicely.
Chris: Yeah. It actually showed that Star Trek that was less episodic and more overarching worked really well.
Oren: Any other stories we want to call out?
Mike: Gurren Lagann, an anime. It is not the best written, and it’s problematic in many ways, including sexism and homophobia in some of the lines and characters. But when it comes to escalation, it nails it. The mechs that they pilot literally start combining with each other to make larger mechs, so that- there is a constant increase in the scale of combat for both the heroes and the villains.
Until at the very end, it’s this massive single mech-warship in space, when they had started well below the earth’s crust and had to fight to get to the surface, even.
Chris: And it doesn’t even reach Matrix-level ridiculousness?
Mike: No, because it’s not an increase in number to the point of ridiculousness, it’s- they combine and build larger things; so, it gets ridiculous in its own way, but it’s intentionally so. Like, it is self-aware enough of what aspects of their escalation is ridiculous, that they’re able to do it without it just becoming a joke.
It’s like, okay, you laugh at it. They make a quip about, ‘oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening,’ or something, when some new aspect of their technology is revealed. And then they move on with the now larger scale of mech fights that they’re going to be having.
Chris: I would like to call The Martian, which I’m reading right now, as a book that does not have that much escalation but does a really good job with it. So, central premise being an astronaut that is left behind by his crew on Mars and has to survive, and it jumps right into that conflict right away, and the stakes, pretty much all the way through, are whether or not he will live or die.
So, because of the way the story is structured, the author doesn’t have that much of an opportunity to actually raise the stakes throughout the book, but he does really well by just making sure that the nature of the problem that the main character is tackling changes, and that- it’s like, ‘oh, I’m now in contact with NASA and they’re giving me directions, and now I’m following NASA’s directions.’
‘Oh, wait, I lost contact with NASA again; now I have to do this other thing.’ And making sure that the situation changes, and different equipment he relies on breaks down, or he fixes things, and it keeps it going really well, even though the stakes can’t really be raised.
Mike: The movie is also very good. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my to-read list.
Chris: The movie is quite true to the book, actually.
Oren: Alright. Well, I think that is about all the time we have for today. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment on the website at Mythcreants.com. And otherwise, we will see you in a few weeks. [closing song.]
Chris: This has been the Mythcreants podcast. Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton.
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