High Stakes Game!


I watch the crappy movies that Syfy channel runs on Saturdays.  Oh, not every Saturday, but they’re a fantastic way to turn my brain off and get some writing done, because if I stop paying attention for half an hour, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything.  It’s also where I get a certain amount of fodder for my Writer Reviews file.  Today’s not going to be an official Writer Reviews post, but I would like to look at one of the Syfy movies that ran, oh, about a month ago.  I wish I could remember the title, but they all end up blurring together and, with the exception of Asylum releases, tend not to have overly evocative titles to begin with.

The plot of the movie concerned an antimatter storm churning in the earth’s atmosphere, rapidly increasing in size and threatening a city in, let’s say, Texas.  Yes, this is about the long term impact these movies have on me.  Eventually the movie hit the point where stakes had to be introduced.  Typically in this type of movie the stakes are the very planet itself.  Standard stakes in a natural disaster movie.  In this case, however, the astrophysicist working with the military determined that the storm wouldn’t just stop when the earth was destroyed, but that it would accelerate and destroy the entire universe!

At this point, I lost any connection I may have had with the movie.  The idea that some mistake at some nuclear power plant somewhere on earth could destroy the entire universe just doesn’t sit with me.  Largely because the universe is so old and massive that if something so localized could destroy the whole of it, we probably wouldn’t have gotten to this point.  Logic dictates that the universe simply can not be that fragile.  It’s a complete failure in setting the stakes for the movie, and left me feeling less tension, not more.

And that’s really the goal of stakes.  They define what can be lost through failure.  When properly deployed, they determine the audience’s emotional investment and attachment with the story, and the amount of tension in the story.  But this doesn’t mean that higher stakes will result in more investment and tension.  Stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.  I don’t buy a movie-of-the-week disaster story with end of the universe stakes.  I wouldn’t buy a period love story with even city-wide destruction stakes.  Gone With the Wind not withstanding.  The stakes have to be appropriate to the story in question.

This is all a round about way to talk about American Horror Story.  I love this show.  Love this show.  It’s probably one of my two or three absolute favorite shows on television right now, right up with Hell on Wheels and just outpacing Fringe and Castle.  I’ve talked about all four on this blog in the past, but I’m revisiting American Horror Story because this week’s episode established the stakes for the rest of the season.

The pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  Part of why I love the show is getting to write sentence’s like that.

The stakes of the show have been very clear through the first seven episodes.  It’s about a family, and the question was always whether something was going to happen to make one of them snap and kill everyone else.  That’s the history of the house, it creates death.  That’s to be expected, the standard stakes in a haunted house story are the occupants of the house.  Their sanity, their lives, their relationships, all of them are on the line as the shit starts going down.  We’re even conditioned to expect the worst in this show, because even if they end up dead they might still come back next season.  Most stars of shows are safe because they’re the marquee names, but once ghosts are in play, all bets are off.

But now the pope says rubber man’s baby means the end of the world.  It’s such a sudden and jarring amplification of the stakes at play that it threw me out of the episode.  Oh, not the show.  Certainly not the show.  It’s still fantastically campy and wonderful and toeing every line that it can toe without being on HBO instead of FX.  Perhaps this is why the show disappointed me so much with the new stakes being set so late in the season, it’s an odd bait and switch.  That said, this is a show about being campy in every way possible short of buying a tent and a propane lantern, so I’ll be staying with it even as it dives off the deep end, because I suspect it’ll be a fun trip.  But that doesn’t make it appropriate in all circumstances.  Remember that horror and comedy are flip sides of the same coin, and exaggeration in either can work well if guided by the right writers.  I’m firmly of two minds about this, and thus will adopt a wait-and-see approach.  It does do, however, leave fewer directions to go with the already green lit second season.

That’s the problem with stakes in any kind of serial, whether a TV series, a series of movies, or a series of books.  It’s always easier to increase stakes than it is to decrease.  It’s not impossible to decrease stakes.  Please don’t say I ever said that.  It’s just harder to move in that direction, and takes a very deft hand.

Be aware of the stakes you’re setting in your story, ask yourself if you’re pushing them too far.  Ramp them back if need be.  There are fantastic stories out there that have very small stakes, largely because the smaller the stakes the more personally they’ll play on each character, so the richer each character can be.  If you’re feeling the need to increase the stakes, ask why, make sure that the stakes work in the scale of the story.  It’s certainly possible to create a story with universe saving stakes, but it needs to be universe scaled.

The fate of the world depends on it.

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