Note: the following post is mostly about my own writing, but it contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. Proceed at your own risk.
S P O I L E R S
Okay. Phew. Look, I know it’s been two weeks but I don’t want to be the one who ruins it for you, okay?
So, I’ve been thinking about stakes, lately.
The main reason I’ve been pondering this is that I’m about 3/4s of the way through writing another novel. (At this point, I’ve written 6 or 7 novels; I’m not great at quantifying them because of how often I’ve *rewritten* some of them from line one on, and how much that really counts.) They never go anywhere; I’m not great at writing them; that’s not the point.
The point is I’ve spent fifty thousand words inside a single universe with about 20-30 more to go, and so I’ve been considering conflict, structure, and all that jazz.
And then Infinity War came along.
Now, I fucking loved Infinity War. Saw it twice on the opening weekend, even knowing what I was in for the second time. I’ve never seen Doctor Strange, despise the Guardians of the Galaxy (that’s another blog post. I’ll spare you.), knew going in that there were too many goddamn characters and the plot was going to be fucking stuffed and even with all that, I thought it was pretty masterfully done. Quibbles with pacing and plotting put aside, it got the characters right, and gave them all space to shine for a little bit, and had some of my favorite Marvel moments to date.
I’m not entirely up on the Discourse; I don’t read a lot of thinkpieces. From what I see, most people out there seemed to like it too. But one criticism I’ve seen lobbed a couple times is that, in killing off half the universe, in erasing characters like Black Panther and Spiderman who we know are going to come back for sequels, the MCU has erased the stakes. That knowing these characters are going to “survive” whatever Thanos ultimately did to them (and they’re going to–Spiderman 2 is due out within months of Avengers 4, and Black Panther made All The Money so he’s not going anywhere anytime soon) means no one will have any investment or real interest in Avengers 4.
Which is some bullshit.
I mean, if that’s you’re opinion, if you have no interest in seeing what happens next because you don’t think the stakes are real anymore, then that’s you’re opinion and you’re welcome to it. But.
It got me thinking.
And I think that, a lot of times, people get stakes wrong.
We assume that stakes have to be life or death, the big bad villain against the good guys, and who will prevail?
But what about how they prevail?
What does it do to a character who was “dead,” and then is not? Where did they go, and what did they experience there? What has to be sacrificed to get them back? What assumptions about themselves, or beliefs that they held, change or disappear through their ordeal? What happens to their relationships, when they have gone through an experience others haven’t gone through?
Those are just some of the particular stakes I see resulting from the end of Avengers four. And expand it to half of the damn universe–because yes, the whole universe is getting fixed, here. What will it mean, when half the population disappeared, and then they came back? What will that do to religion, to political systems, to personal relationships?
Those are some pretty big fucking stakes, as far as I’m concerned.
So, this novel I’m writing, it’s pretty “low stakes.”
I’m not great at external conflict. I don’t write battles, or fight scenes, or really anything in that vein. I’m all about the internal stuff; if I could get away with keeping characters in a white-walled room ruminating on their insecurities and sad pasts, I would totally do it. I keep trying to write the exciting, adventurous stuff, but it’s not really my wheelhouse, and I’m learning to lean into that.
So the novel I’m working on is about a boy and a girl. It’s a retelling, so the basic shape of the plot is set (I wanted to do this because I’m Not Great with plot, and I wanted to see how working in the constraint of a retelling would go.) Anyone familiar with the source material (and I’m not saying what it is here, but most anyone who grew up with Disney will know the source material) will know how it’s supposed to end, and probably guess a lot of steps in how it goes in the middle.
Does that mean that there aren’t any stakes?
I don’t have any big battles. No one dies. The conflict is all about the relationship between these two people–will they come to trust each other, can they come to love each other–and internally. How do their experiences make them mature and grow?
I think that those things can translate into stakes, provided that I am able to make people care about the characters to begin with.
And therein lies the challenge.
Stakes are all about characters. If you care about them enough, if you root for them enough, then something as small as a papercut can have huge consequences, and huge stakes. The work of the writer is to get the reader to feel that level of investment.