I recently saw a movie that got me thinking about the state of stories. In particular – why aren’t all of them good?
Whether it’s folklore, fairy tales, fantasy, science fiction, or literary, written, spoken, or filmed, humanity has been telling stories for millennia. Surely, we have a recipe for crafting the perfect tale after all this time!
When it comes to structure, we do have the recipe for the most part: the Hero’s Journey is arguably a sure-fire way to structure a story. But that’s not the only kind of story or the only way to achieve it. And structure is not the only thing one needs to make a story a good one that resonates with readers.
The not-so-good movie I saw was The Last Voyage of the Demeter. Have you seen it? I adore Gothic horror, vampires, and sea-faring tales, so it seemed like an automatic win. And parts of it did win. The cinematography was excellent. The acting was nicely dramatic and dark. The subject matter of 19th-century vampires was sublime. But I ultimately felt numb during the film.
The importance of stakes
One problem was the stakes – or rather the lack of stakes – in the story (vampire pun partially intended). So what if Dracula drinks everyone dry? So what if they die? Anyone who’s read Bram Stoker’s Dracula already knows how it ends, so the allure of the narrative should not rely on wondering how it’ll all turn out – yet that’s unfortunately what the storytellers leaned into: mystery as suspense.
In terms of writing, your goal isn’t necessarily to keep your readers on the edge of their seats (though that is certainly an element you can include, especially in horror and thriller genres), but to keep them in their seats.
Your readers don’t have to be in a state of constant suspense to keep reading. They merely have to care about what happens next because you, the author, crafted meaningful stakes and consequences.
What makes stakes meaningful?
We often hear about raising the stakes to improve a story. Solid advice.
However, raising the stakes doesn’t require that the world is about to end in an alien invasion unless the characters stop it. It doesn’t demand a gun to someone’s head or an ‘Or else everyone will die!’ Effectively raising the stakes should be intertwined with the protagonist’s motivations, whether that translates to something cozy, death-defying, or otherwise.
I’ll discuss a short story example later, but let me return to Demeter for now.
The main character, Clemmons, says his motivation is to understand the world better. O-kay. What does that mean? Why should we care about that? Why does he care about that? And perhaps more importantly, when will Clemmons understand the world better?
For the reader to care, they must know at what point the goal is reached or not. Something abstract like understanding the world better gives no measurement of success, no visible and knowable points of progress.
If the reader can’t gauge the ups and downs of the main character’s progress toward a goal, then the reader struggles to care what the outcome is.
That may sound very Hero’s Journey (i.e. we need trials and errors), but what I’m trying to get at is the importance of emotional stakes in a story. We don’t get any tangible measurement of Clemmons’s success, but what’s worse is that we don’t know how he feels about his own goal or how he feels when he gets closer to it or further away from it. What, emotionally, does he stand to lose? To gain? Why?
An example of meaningful stakes
A narrative that succeeds exceptionally well at pulling off meaningful stakes is the science fiction short story ‘The Great Silence’ by Hugo, Nebula, and Locus (honestly, all the awards) Award-winning author Ted Chiang.
It doesn’t follow the Hero’s Journey structure, since there is no Hero and there is no Journey, but there is a remarkable and well-told story with high emotional stakes.
First of all, go read ‘The Great Silence.’ It’s short (only 1,200 words) and available on Nautilus for free.
Did you read it? Great!
Were you moved? Even better.
If you weren’t… well, maybe you’re an undead vampire with a cold, cold heart. But there’s hope even for the undead writers among us to craft a story with emotionally high stakes. Read on!
‘The Great Silence’ opens immediately with character motivation. The first two sentences establish that humans wish to make contact with extraterrestrials. In the third sentence, we realize the main character is a parrot and not a human. In the fourth sentence, we learn the parrots’ motivations: that humans would show the same interest in making contact with them.
Everything else from that moment on contributes to the deepening tension and clash of goals between humans and parrots.
I’ll admit, discussing parrots having feelings can seem silly, but the tension Chiang creates mimics a universal human condition. And that’s the key.
A character always needs a motivation, but unless it is defined and rooted in something that most people can relate to and experience themselves, it feels empty. You and I are not parrots, but I’ll bet all that I own that you have felt slighted, unheard, ignored, or forgotten by someone you care about at some point in your life. And so we can immediately and deeply understand the pain of not being heard, parrot or not.
Once that is established, Chiang offers us a mini-story (or backstory) of a parrot named Alex who emulated humans almost perfectly. Even better than perfectly, because Alex’s dying message to the world was that of love. Alex attained what many strive for but few achieve: goodness. And he was still rejected and ignored.
What is at stake? Extinction of the parrots. But it doesn’t feel violently world-destroying. It is quiet, just like the Great Silence, the poetic term for the Fermi Paradox. The parrots will die because they go unheard.
In the end…
And that’s it. Chiang’s entire story is a weaving of high emotional stakes achieved by tapping into universal human experiences.
Going back to Demeter, you can see, hopefully, that in contrast, that the motivation of a highly educated man wanting to understand the world better does nothing for the story. If Clemmons fails, he simply doesn’t get to keep traveling and learning. Without some deeper context of what that means, how it’s connected to the human experience, and how his life will change if he doesn’t attain it, you might as well give him the motivation of wanting to brush his teeth and call it a day.
An unwitting consequence that makes ‘The Great Silence’ even more gut-wrenching is that the Aricebo telescope mentioned in the story collapsed in 2020 from neglect five years after Chiang wrote the story. And that is perhaps the highest of emotional stakes I can think of. That when you ignore someone or something, they disappear. Worse than dead, they are forgotten.
Jalyn Renae Fiske serves as Fiction Editor for James Gunn’s Ad Astra magazine and has her MFA in creative writing. She likes to read and write the gamut of speculative fiction from dragons to ghosts to AI, with themes that explore loss, otherness, and challenging the status quo. You can find her at her website.
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