Six impossible things

Andromeda and More Stakes

Lots of writers have a problem figuring out what the actual stakes are (as opposed to the perceived stakes). Quick review: the actual stakes are what’s really at stake for the character; the perceived stakes are what the character currently thinks is at stake.

One reason for this is that “what the character and/or reader currently thinks is at stake” is generally, in fact, at stake. The peace of the Shire, and his own promise to Gandalf, are both things that matter to Frodo and that are “at stake” when he finally leaves to take the Ring to Rivendell; it’s just that in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot more that is also at stake (like, the whole world), but that Frodo doesn’t know about yet.

In this example, the two stakes – the currently perceived stakes and the ultimate actual stakes – are on the same continuum. Saving The World and Saving The Shire are the same sort of action-adventure type goal; we’re not looking at Saving the Shire and then finding out that the actual stakes involve Getting the Girl. When the perceived and actual stakes are on the same continuum, it is a lot simpler for both reader and writer to follow the movement of the plot as the stakes rise and rise again, until the ultimate actual stakes are revealed.

If, however, the current/perceived stakes are one kind of thing and the ultimate/actual stakes are different, the writer has to be a lot clearer and more focused on the actual stakes a lot sooner, or the reader won’t follow the shift. If the reader has been cued to look for emotional stakes, like Getting the Girl, they may not recognize that the real stakes involve Catching the Murderer, and therefore they end up feeling unhappy and unsatisfied when the romantic plot they thought they were looking at seems to drop out of the book midway through.

Writers can have the same sort of problem. They’ve set up a lovely romantic situation, then realize their hero/heroine has no reason to be interested in the supposed love interest (or no obstacles whatever exist to their union), and they’re so busy looking at the non-romance plot that they don’t see that the real stakes involve temptation and the integrity of the main character. This is particularly common when a writer is facing an action-adventure situation in which the supposed protagonist “can’t do anything,” like the Andromeda-tied-to-the-rock incident people were discussing in the comments.

Andromeda is in peril of her life; that’s clearly a major thing that’s at stake for the character. But is it the most important thing that’s at stake for that character? If the writer is looking at a straight action-adventure story, maybe her life is the most important thing for Andromeda. It is, however, quite possible to imagine a story in which it isn’t – one where Andromeda is fighting an internal emotional battle or learning a personal lesson that is more important in some sense than getting killed by the dragon. Perhaps she has to be a volunteer in order for her sacrifice to save the kingdom, but she’s having trouble holding on to her willingness to die for others. Or perhaps she’s always been a spoiled, entitled brat and only realizes it when she’s hauled out and tied to the rock. I can picture a really moving story in which Andromeda is actually eaten by the dragon, but it’s still a triumph because she’s won her internal battle, even though no one else will ever know.

And then there’s the matter of timing: Andromeda tied helpless to the rock certainly looks like the climax of a story, but even in the original myth, it isn’t. The climax of the Andromeda story comes when her father tries to go back on his promise to marry her to the man who rescues her, and Perseus turns him and his court to stone with Medusa’s head; the climax of the Perseus story comes when he gets back home after his adventures, rescues his mother, and takes over the kingdom (or hands it off to someone else, depending on what version you have).

The writer who has a protagonist in a situation they can’t do anything about – tied to a rock waiting for rescue – may be looking at the beginning of a story, with the eventual actual stakes involving the consequences of the rescue. Those consequences can be action-adventure, raise-the-stakes consequences (Grendel’s mother is a bigger threat than Grendel, but she doesn’t show up until after Beowulf kills her son), or they can be on another continuum entirely (Andromeda dealing with the PTSD from being tied to the rock or survivor’s guilt from the court being turned to stone, or the difficulty of making her marriage to a stranger from a completely different culture work, or her personal development from the vain, shallow girl who was tied to the rock into, eventually, a woman of strength and wisdom). As long as the writer is only looking at Brave-Little-Tailor plots (because “dragon about to eat girl tied to rock” has action plot written all over it), he/she is unlikely to spot the potential Boy-Meets-Girl and Woman-Learns-Lesson possibilities, where “what’s at stake” is Andromeda’s marriage, her evolution into a better person, or her self-worth, all of which come after the rescue and all of which necessarily involve her “doing things.”

Strongly character-centered stories practically beg for the real stakes to be internal or emotional, even when they’re action-adventure stories on the surface. Unfortunately, action-adventure stakes are usually pretty clear and obviously important, and thus tend to have more mental weight for both writer and reader. This means that the writer has to either have a great intuitive sense of the internal/emotional stakes, or else pay more careful attention to figuring out what the internal/emotional stakes could be and whether they should be the ultimate/actual stakes for the main plot, or only a subplot. It also means that if the writer is going to start with something that looks like action-adventure (Andromeda tied to the rock), but intends the ultimate stakes to be on some other level, that writer needs to bring in hints and focus on the emotional/internal stuff very soon, as well as being very clear about both plot patterns. Because otherwise, the action-adventure that’s supposed to be a subplot can end up looking so important that it swamps the internal plot.

Next time, some thoughts on how one can keep things in balance and make it work.

15 Comments
  1. That last paragraph about stories where the stakes appear to be action/adventure but are really internal/emotional makes me think of Mystic and Rider by Sharon Shinn (which I’ve just been re-reading). On the surface the story seems to be about the group of main characters finding the information they need about the forthcoming rebellion and getting it back to the king, and that’s certainly an important part of the plot – but it’s really about the six of them learning to trust each other despite their differences and the two POV characters struggling to accept their growing feelings for each other.

  2. Hmm. Maybe my real trouble is that I really really really do not want to write character-centered stories where the primary stakes are internal or emotional. And if the plot wants to turn into one, I’ll try to twist it back until it breaks, and then I’ll drop the whole idea.

    Also: “Andromeda is in peril of her life; that’s clearly a major thing that’s at stake for the character.” Actually I’d have to say no. Her life is not at stake – instead her life is already forfeit. Unless I manage somehow to be very clever about making it not-forfeit. More generally, I have trouble finding the right balance between “too easy” and “impossible.”

    Me: OK protagonist, here’s the story-problem I’m handing you.
    Protagonist: That’s not a problem; that’s just me getting screwed. I’m going into ‘hopeless damage control’ mode, rather than trying to ‘solve’ anything.
    Me: Well then, what if I change things to be like this?
    Protagonist: That’s not a problem either. I can quickly solve that one out of hand.

    • Hm… looks like you wanna write a character-centric story but keep trying to brainstorm with PLOT-centric ideas. Instead of asking your characters what they would do in x situation… Try asking what your character finds fun, and what they find hard. For insistence a child will find a 100 word paper VERY hard but…. a college student would find 100 words to be a mere test question. Most people would be very, very willing to do something “hard-but-fun”. Or reasonably willing to do something hard that results in said fun thing.

      And look up the Extra Credits episode “When Difficult is Fun” on YouTube.

      • I think it’s more the opposite: I really want to write plot-centric stories, but keep coming up with characters who would be good for character-centric stories (at least in another writer’s hands).

        And maybe I’m fixated on ‘hard’ as the only way to make story-plots ‘interesting.’ There’s a common pattern there. Lots of stories feature characters who are way over their heads and facing panic-inducing high stakes. E.g. Frodo walking into Mordor.

        That might be worth a post from our hostess: How to make plots and story problems ‘more interesting’ in ways other than just cranking up the difficulty or the size of the stakes.

        • ways other than just cranking up the difficulty or the size of the stakes.

          I call this “The Redwall Problem.”

          It’s a rat!
          It’s a rat in charge of an army!
          It’s a rat AND a weasel in charge of an army!
          It’s a fox — and he has a small army!
          It’s a fox . . . who killed a wolf! Who has an army!
          It’s a magic fox — nine magic foxes! And a sea monster!
          It’s only a small army, but THE ABBEY WALL IS FALLING DOWN! And there are evil snakes!

          Etc.

    • What wrong with letting the protagonist go into damage control mode only to have the problems and damage escalate because no attempt is being made to avoid the screwing? It would be like the bully keeps escalating the abuse until the bullied one gets in the face of the bully or stages it so the bully gets caught bullying by some other, higher power.

      See also “straws breaking camels backs”, “the (explosive) anger of a patient protagonist”, “sacrificial goats never eat through their tethers” and similar things involving slow growing explosions.

    • “Her life is not at stake – instead her life is already forfeit.”

      Thinking this way may be your problem. It’s a very passive way of looking at it. A more active hero would be more likely to think that her life’s not forfeit until she’s actually dead. I can’t think of many people who would like to read about an Andromeda who sits on the rock thinking, “oh woe is me, my life is already over”. Most readers would rather read about an Andromeda who gets chained to the rock and then says, “Right, let’s find a way to get out of this situation. There’s always something.”

    • >”Her life is already forfeit.”

      Does SHE think that? If so, you don’t have a character-centered story that you’re trying to find a plot for. You have a main character who has given up, which is not something most people want to read about.

      Note that it does not matter whether YOU are certain the character has no way out. You can start with Andromeda tied to the rock and end with her eaten, and still have a perfectly good plot. It can even be an “action” plot, if the focus is on her trying various things to wiggle out of the chains or pick the locks or do whatever miniscule thing she can do to try to avoid her fate, which YOU know is inevitable, as long as SHE doesn’t know, or knows and keeps trying. That’s the fundamental plot of all the Norse myths – everybody KNOWS Ragnarok is unavoidable, and they struggle to hold it off anyway.

      And in point of fact, Andromeda’s life is not “already forfeit” in the original myth; it’s saved by someone else…who is in fact the protagonist of that myth. Maybe your problem is that you keep coming up with “main characters” who are really supporting cast?

      • > Does SHE think that? If so, you don’t have a character-centered story that you’re trying to find a plot for. You have a main character who has given up, which is not something most people want to read about.

        I think we are in violent agreement on this point.

        > Note that it does not matter whether YOU are certain the character has no way out.

        Except that as a reader, I don’t want to read the sort of story where the protagonist is shown as ultimately having no way out. Norse myths of Ragnarok, “To Build a Fire,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “The Cold Equations” – those stories do work for lots of readers, but not all of them, and I happen to be one of the ones who loathe that sort of thing.

        > And in point of fact, Andromeda’s life is not “already forfeit” in the original myth; it’s saved by someone else…

        Yes. I thought there was an implicit “from her point of view.” Or maybe I should have put it that her life is at stake, but it’s not her stake. It’s Perseus for whom her life is the stake.

        > Maybe your problem is that you keep coming up with “main characters” who are really supporting cast?

        Maybe. I can avoid having characters who just give up, but it’s a rut I fall into if I don’t work hard to avoid it.

        Or maybe I need to work more on giving my “main characters” some sort of special gift or ability or maguffin or other resource, rather than just throwing them into the situation as pure naked victims. Perseus had Pegasus and the head of Medusa. And Cinderella had the gifts from her fairy godmother that allowed her to attend the ball.

        • Maybe you need to remember that you’re the author and you’re in charge of the situation your characters are thrown into. You act like there’s nothing you can do about it, but you can always write it differently. 😛

        • Or…. write about smaller days. Andromada was chained and left for the snake for ONE day. There were many other days in her life. Perhaps you simply need to reassure the reader that “she gets rescued” before you start talking about that Sea Monster. A dream sequence or flashback is traditional. Or a narrator flat out reassuring the reader to start.

          Cheering on a character that has given up is a pretty fun way to start a story. Like talking down a jumper from a ledge. SUCCESSFULLY!

    • I can see having her life already forfeit not being the same as her having given up. Maybe she knows she’s dying or, essentially, dead already, but this is hardly an unheard of plot element. Gran Torino… Clint Eastwood’s character’s life is forfeit. That’s the whole point of the whole plot. Saving his life isn’t an option and it doesn’t happen.

  3. I’ve not thought of things that way before. Hmmmm. Lots to ponder.

  4. Thank you! I’m revising a novel right now, and you just made one of my problems clear to me.

    Are you going to do a post on pacing? I have a scene that’s puzzling me greatly. It’s a major event, one I’ve been leading up to for over 100 pages, but it feels too long. It is long, but hey, it’s a major turning point. Maybe I need to make it more clear ahead of time that my MC really could die out there in the otherworld. Maybe I should interrupt the scene and show her companions aware of her danger, trying to keep her alive.

    Hmm. I have another character whose main flaw is a tendency to over-think things. Wonder where that came from?

  5. I had one story where I had a character tied up and helpless in a crucial early scene. I thought of giving him something to do, but alas, it was crucial that he not be to blame by any sane measure for what went awry in the scene. . . .

    Gave him a lot to do as a consequence, though. That scene set his stakes for the rest of the story.

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