Stories need conflict, and stakes are what make the conflict matter. They represent the bad things that will happen if the hero doesn’t win the day. Without proper stakes, stories have no tension. Who cares if the hero wins when there’s nothing riding on it? Weak stakes can also make it difficult to care about the characters, particularly if they risk their lives for something that doesn’t seem important. These problems can absolutely ruin a story, so it’s important to study famous examples and not make the same mistakes ourselves.
At the beginning of this scifi epic, the bad guys kick things off by destroying a whole fleet of warships. Wow, how exciting! Except that the warships are empty. And they’re guarded by a single, lightly armed patrol ship. And they don’t belong to anyone because they were confiscated from the loser of a big war several years ago, and the victorious powers haven’t agreed who should get them yet.
This is less an inciting incident and more a moment of head scratching as we try to figure out whether the bad guys actually did anything bad. While some politicians are upset, the fleet’s destruction doesn’t seem to have seriously hampered relations. The bad guys did manage to steal one of the warships, but that actually makes the situation feel less serious. Before, we could at least imagine that the bad guys, whoever they are, had a huge fleet hidden somewhere. But if they went to the trouble of stealing a ship, that implies they don’t have too many of their own.
From here, the novel fractures into a number of unrelated POVs, but at least one character continues working on the mystery of who blew up these ships and why. For almost the entire book, we get nothing. When there’s conflict at all, it’s minor and has nothing to do with the destroyed fleet. We don’t even see the stolen ship rear its head.
Whatever interest we had in the initial plot quickly fades as it becomes clear that nothing is at stake. We have no idea who the bad guys are, what they want, or how powerful they are. Most of the novel is so removed from the initial attack that you could take that part out and very little would change. It’s exactly as exciting as it sounds.
Then, almost at the end, our hero catches a break. Specifically, he catches some pirates who appear linked to the fleet’s initial destruction. Finally, we’ll get some payoff and learn what’s at stake. Nope! Instead, the pirate captain speaks cryptically about some vaguely bad things that might happen soon, and then the story ends. I guess it was nice of him to hype the next book like that, but there still aren’t any stakes in this book.
This is a clear case of the author assuming a mystery would automatically create tension, a mistake I encounter all the time. While a mysterious enemy can indeed be more threatening than a well-known one, we still need to know them at least a little. If every single thing about the bad guys is an enigma, then we have no reason to think they’re doing anything bad. And that means we have no reason to care.
2. The Tropic of Serpents
Moving on from high-tech space opera, we have a fantasy novel set in a world that’s roughly equivalent to our own in the 1800s, except there are dragons. Lots of dragons. Isabella, our protagonist, studies dragons, so her adventures take her all over the world. However, when the story starts she’s at home in Fantasy England, and the story appears to have plenty at stake. Earlier in the series, Isabella discovered a formula for preserving dragon bone, an incredibly strong and light material that normally decays soon after the animal dies. If that formula were publicly known, people would hunt dragons to extinction to get at their structurally useful bones.
Guess what: someone stole the formula. Uh oh. It’s time for Isabella to get on the case, either tracking down the thieves or working to discover a synthetic replacement for dragon bone. Or, I guess she could leave on a completely unrelated expedition to study dragons in another country. Don’t worry, I’m sure that dragon-bone plot will keep an eye on itself while she’s gone.
So, what are the stakes of this expedition? The stakes are that Isabella and her colleagues would like to study dragons and incrementally add to humanity’s collective knowledge about the creatures. That might be a good approach to scientific research, but it’s not a good set of stakes for a novel. Nothing bad will happen if their expedition is called off; they just won’t get the research they wanted. Not exactly riveting.
Fortunately, the local king steps in to offer some stakes of his own. He’s heard that some nearby swamp folk have trained their dragons to fight in war, something no one else has managed to do. He wants a few eggs to strengthen his country’s defenses and make it less dependent on aid from Fantasy England, as that aid comes with major costs to local independence. This is at least somewhat important, assuming you care about the king and his country’s woes.
Then Isabella reaches the swamp, and the new stakes go right out the window. It’s immediately obvious that the king’s reports were wrong: the swamp folk don’t train their dragons for anything, war or otherwise. Isabella also stops thinking about the king’s request almost immediately, and for most of the story, the only thing at stake is whether the team will collect their data on swamp dragons.
That’s not very exciting, and it gets worse when Isabella is told she has to undergo an incredibly dangerous hazing ritual if she wants to gather more dragon data. Not only does this make the swamp folk seem unreasonable, but it makes Isabella feel irrational for taking such an unnecessary risk. Nothing bad will happen if she doesn’t immediately get this data. She has all the time in the world to either find another way or go study some other dragons. Instead of being on the edge of our seat with concern for her safety, it’s frustrating to watch her risk death for such a nonurgent reason.
Near the end, the novel finally does acquire some invasion-related stakes,* but it’s too late by then. For most of the novel, nothing is at stake other than the gathering of routine scientific observations. It feels like that’s really what the author cared about, and everything else was either left behind or pushed to the side. While there’s some entertainment to be had there, it’s no substitute for the tension of real stakes.
3. The Dispossessed
It can be difficult to spot because of the nonlinear narrative, but The Dispossessed’s plot is about protagonist Shevek trying to complete his unified theory of time. At first, he’s trying to complete it on the largely anarchist moon Anarres. Later,* he journeys to the planet Urras in the hopes of finishing the theory there. Urras is split between thinly veiled parallels to the USA and USSR, and a lot of the text is taken up by Shevek exploring a brand-new world of capitalism, but finishing unified theory is still what ties the story together.
This novel has a similar problem to The Tropic of Serpents, and it’s increasingly clear that abstract research doesn’t make for a good plot on its own. In the Anarres sections, Shevek encounters a series of problems that set his research back. First, he has to deal with a jealous coworker who sabotages him and also tries to take credit for his ideas. Then, he has to put his research aside for several years as he pitches in with the agricultural work needed to keep Anarres’s constant droughts at bay.
Those are significant obstacles, but the novel fails to establish why it’s important for Shevek to finish his theory other than personal fulfillment. There aren’t any problems that the theory will solve or an impending danger that it will divert. Shevek isn’t striking a blow against institutional prejudice in the scientific community, nor is he working on anything to keep his anarchist society safe from its capitalist and communist neighbors. If you really like Shevek, then his personal fulfillment might be enough to create tension, but otherwise the book is a snoozefest.
It’s much the same once Shevek reaches Urras. There are side plots about the dangers of capitalism, but the work that’s supposedly the main plot still has no stakes. At one point, the book tries to add some by hinting that Shevek’s capitalist hosts want to use his theory in the development of a faster-than-light drive, but this doesn’t seem particularly important. The capitalists can already reach their enemies without any trouble, as they’re either on Urras itself or on orbiting Anarres. An FTL drive wouldn’t make the capitalists any more dangerous than they already are.
Near the end, Shevek tries to escape from his capitalist hosts, which introduces life-or-death stakes to the plot.* Unfortunately, this is way too late to save the book. When 90% of a book is boring, most readers won’t reach the exciting final tenth. If anything, the sudden introduction of machine guns and explosions is likely to turn off readers who were previously enjoying the book’s sedate, violence-free pace.
The lesson of both The Tropic of Serpents and The Dispossessed is that positive personal stakes aren’t enough to drive a story. Both novels structure their plot around the protagonist seeking knowledge largely for knowledge’s sake, but readers simply respond better to negative consequences than positive ones. It’s the same reason that your hero getting a raise won’t make for good stakes. Having more money might be nice for them, but it doesn’t feel very important. Now, if they need that raise to keep from losing their home, those are some stakes that matter.
4. Agents of Dreamland
The plot of this cosmic horror novella is even more difficult to figure out than the last entry’s. We have an American agent talking to a British agent about a possibly dangerous cult leader, and then we have a separate POV where a girl spouts enough nonsense pseudo-philosophy that she’s probably a member of said cult. A little later we meet a character who can time travel, seemingly so the book can tell us about a future where Earth has been taken over by fungus aliens. Sure, why not?
After a surprisingly long time for such a short book, we find out that the American agent is part of a team that’s trying to track the cult leader and bring him to justice. That’s something, but not very much. The story still hasn’t given us any reason to think that this cult leader will do something bad if he’s not apprehended, or that something bad will happen if he is apprehended. Nor is it clear that the agent is even on Team Good. He spends a lot of time thinking about how shady his employers are, so for all we know this cult could be the good guys.
If that had been the intent, it could have worked very well. But that doesn’t seem to be the case in Agents of Dreamland. If we’re supposed to question who’s right and who’s wrong, we’d be presented with differing views on what’s going on. We might get them from the agent as he wonders where the line is between right and wrong, or we might get competing narratives from the different POVs. Instead, while the agent does complain a lot, he never questions if he’s on the right side. Meanwhile, the cultist’s POV is too chaotic and surreal to provide any insight.
Finally, we learn something concrete: the cult’s followers are already dead, killed under mysterious circumstances that somehow involve a weird fungus. Okay, that’s something. We can at least assume that if this leader has gotten his followers killed before, he might do that again, even though the authorities think he’s just lying low. This is another lesson: what a villain is going to do matters more than what they’ve already done. If they’ve killed someone, that’s tragic, but the victim is already dead. The real stakes are ensuring they won’t kill again.
As if on queue, a real set of stakes appear near the very end. This isn’t just a normal fungus-loving cult, you see. Their whole purpose is to summon the fungus aliens that take over Earth in the future, which we know about because of the time traveler. I’ll never get over how weird it is that this book introduces time travel exclusively for the purposes of exposition. Anyway, now we have some real stakes and the story can finally get going…
…Except at the same time, we find out the cult’s plan to summon the aliens has already happened. It happened before the story even started. Now, this is cosmic horror, so it’s not automatically bad to reveal that the hero’s struggles were doomed all along, but that has to happen after you’ve set up a more conventional conflict with meaningful stakes. Finding out there’s no chance to win isn’t that horrific if there was never any chance in the first place.
Dreamland’s lack of stakes seems largely down to an overemphasis on mysterious narration. The story is so devoted to its vague allusions that we can’t ever tell what’s actually going on. While mystery is a great spice for any story, and especially good with horror, we still need enough grounded narration to understand what’s at stake. Otherwise, it’s like trying to eat a handful of cinnamon.
5. Soon I Will Be Invincible
This last entry is a backstory novel from 2007. Sorry, I mean a superhero novel from 2007. It’s also a two-for-one deal, as we get two largely unrelated stories, each with a complete lack of stakes. They do both have a whole lot of backstory, but that doesn’t help as the backstory-to-stakes exchange rate is dreadful this time of year.
The first story follows Fatale and her fellow heroes as they theoretically search for the missing CoreFire, this setting’s equivalent to Superman. I say theoretically because most of the text is spent exploring Fatale’s backstory, her teammates’ backstory, the backstory of other heroes her teammates have met, and the backstory of heroes those heroes have met. Sounds… exciting?
When the narrative occasionally breaks out of backstory jail, the stakes are still very low. For one thing, it’s not clear that anything has even happened to CoreFire. He’s effectively invincible, so he could just be out for a week-long stroll. Based on all the backstory, it’s easy to believe he would ghost his teammates. But even if we assume something has happened to him, so what? There’s no looming catastrophe that we need CoreFire to stop, and we have no investment in him on a personal level.
If this actually were Superman, he might have enough latent attachment to lend the story some level of stakes. But CoreFire isn’t Superman, and he simply doesn’t have the cultural influence to make readers care by default. This barrier could have been overcome if, say, Fatale had been personally connected to CoreFire. They could have been comrades who fought side by side, or maybe he saved her once and now she’s going to return the favor. But that would clash with her being the newbie on the team, which is important as an excuse for expositing about all the backstory.
The novel’s other storyline is about the super villain Doctor Impossible and his plan to do… something. I’d love to tell you what it is, but the good doctor’s first-person narration conveniently hides that information for some reason. We see him break out of prison, then watch as he procures a series of items for his master plan, but we’re never told what that plan is. We are told an endless series of anecdotes about Impossible’s backstory, but nothing about his goals in the present.
I do not understand why the narrative withholds this critical bit of info from us. When the reveal finally comes, it’s nothing particularly surprising or meaningful.* It honestly looks like an intentional ploy to keep the story from having any stakes, and if that’s the case, then oh boy is it effective. It’s hard to be worried about what Impossible is doing since he won’t tell us what it is, and the previous plans we learn about in his backstory are more campy than destructive.
The only thing we know for sure is that Impossible doesn’t have anything to do with CoreFire’s disappearance. The heroes think he does though, which conveniently takes away the last vestige of meaningful stakes. Without Impossible’s POV, it’s technically possible to get excited over Fatale’s team hunting down the evil villain and finding out what happened to CoreFire. But since we immediately find out that Impossible isn’t involved, all of the heroes’ actions are now even more pointless than they were before.
The reason for Soon I Will Be Invincible’s lack of stakes is obvious: with proper stakes, there’d have been less time for backstory! If the heroes actually had something urgent to do, they wouldn’t be able to spend long scenes reminiscing about long-ago battles or going through their post-workout cleanup routine. And if Doctor Impossible were actually doing something important, there’d be less time for musing on the nature of villainy. From what I can tell, the nature of villainy is having moderately poor social skills in high school. I’m sure glad we forwent an actual plot for that stunning insight.
When authors neglect to include meaningful stakes, they’re sacrificing their story’s tension. Sometimes, authors do this because they think that keeping readers completely in the dark will make for a more intriguing plot. In other cases, the author has some topic they want to muse on, and they feel constrained by a tense plot. But without tension, the story withers on the vine no matter how mysterious it is or how many deep topics it explores. Give your readers enough information to understand what’s at stake, and if you can’t fit your philosophical musings into a compelling plot, that’s what essays are for.
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