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Stakes Question


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#1 VickieJack

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Posted 05 February 2018 - 10:08 AM

I keep reading about queries not having stakes. What does that even mean? And yes, yes I know what stakes are. But can't novels just be about life? On Golden Pond(yes a play and movie) what were the stakes? Shawshank Redemption...Steel Magnolias...The Story of O. These are just works about life...about people living.
So outside of the realm of fantasy and sci-fi and those things involving some vulcan saving the werewolves from the egfevts of Dr X and his dilithium crystals, what does it mean to focus on the stakes. Isn't just living and having relationships stakes enough?

#2 Nessa

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Posted 05 February 2018 - 01:15 PM

There are always stakes. They're the consequences if the protagonist doesn't achieve the goal.
 
Look at the successful queries forum and you'll see their various forms. They don't have to be huge, like life versus death, or the fate of an entire kingdom in one unfortunate soul's hands, but they have to exist.
 
Your work probably has stakes, but you just don't recognize them.

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#3 lnloft

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Posted 05 February 2018 - 05:43 PM

What Nessa said.

 

But to go into more specifics... I haven't actually seen any of the movies you referenced, so I can't detail them, but I'll use some other examples. Yes, for something like Lord of the Rings, the stakes are easy: "Can Frodo destroy the Ring and save Middle Earth from Sauron?" But you can get very clear-cut stakes outside of fantasy/sci-fi. Dodgeball: "Can the team win the tournament and save their gym?" Oceans Eleven: "Can the team pull off the heist and walk away rich?" Saving Private Ryan: "Can they save Private Ryan?" You specifically cite slice-of-life, which isn't always my forte, but Napoleon Dynamite is an example that I've actually seen. And it does have stakes, which basically boil down to, "Can Napoleon successfully navigate being a socially inept teen?" It's not huge, it impacts really no one except Napoleon, but they are still stakes. If you were writing the query for Napoleon Dynamite: The Book, you would focus on the things that are making it difficult for him to just do his thing, like the school dance, class election, and his weird uncle.

 

Stakes, in other words, are what you make them. Heck, even picture books have them. If you give a mouse a cookie, can you cope with the cascading series of events that will result? They don't have to be big or life-threatening or even life-changing. They just have to be a consequence.


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#4 Springfield

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Posted 06 February 2018 - 12:20 AM

I keep reading about queries not having stakes. What does that even mean? And yes, yes I know what stakes are. But can't novels just be about life? On Golden Pond(yes a play and movie) what were the stakes? Shawshank Redemption...Steel Magnolias...The Story of O. These are just works about life...about people living.
So outside of the realm of fantasy and sci-fi and those things involving some vulcan saving the werewolves from the egfevts of Dr X and his dilithium crystals, what does it mean to focus on the stakes. Isn't just living and having relationships stakes enough?

 

I didn't read or see On Golden Pond or The Story of O, but you seem to misunderstand the other two kind of completely. 

 

Shawshank is not, in any way, just a work about life. It's entirely stakes -- can Andy and Red find freedom (of various kinds); can they survive with their humanity intact? 

 

Steel Magnolias is a godawful piece of treacle that is, again, almost entirely stake-driven. Will she have a kid even if it risks her life? Will her mother be able to let go? 



#5 BadgerFox

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Posted 06 February 2018 - 07:00 AM

They can be about life, sure, and I see what you're saying - but a story would probably be way bizarre with literally zero stakes. Like:

 

'Bob was perfectly and utterly content. Bob needed nothing, wanted nothing, cared about no-one and had no threats in his life to unbalance his perfect happiness. There were no penalities whatsoever for Bob not achieving his goals, because he had none. So Bob sat perfectly still, reached enlightenment, and transcended the earthly realm as a being of Nirvana. The end. '

 

It tends to be highly unrealistic to write a character with no stakes, because (whether for good or ill), it's human nature to have desires to gain something, improve at something, attract someone, learn something, help someone or escape something. And to have negative feelings  or bad consequences if you don't succed at these goals. When a reader sees a character with literally zero desire to change, improve, fix or maintain anything in their life, they are likely to percieve them as either mentally ill or inhumanly unrealistic. Most people are in a constant state of wanting SOMETHING, and feel it if they're denied it. That's why the neo-Buddhist 'mindfulness' movement has been so big in western culture. Once you start noticing it, you realize you go through the entire day with a series of goals that you'd be unhappy if you didn't get.

 

I guess if you DID want to go down the route of writing a philosophical Buddhist piece about a totally stakeless character attaining no-desire, about perfect contentment with the universe exactly as it is, that would be an interesting literary experiment! I think there ARE works of absurdist theatre and surrealist literature that have tried to do this. They questioned the convention for a story character to always have a problem needing solved. However, they're pretty niche and weird, and tend to be rather short. Conventionally, a story always has stakes for a character. Even if they're really mild, everyday stakes or quite abstract, philosophical ones, and not big obvious stuff like taking The One Ring to Mount Doom or escaping from the theme park's rogue dinosaurs.

 

But I agree that it's totally fine to have characters with everyday stakes like 'Can I maintain my role at work this year?' 'Can I be a good father to my child?' 'Can I finally re-wallpaper the bathroom?' 'Can I show the other kids at school that I'm not dumb? 'Can I adequately take care of my sick dog?' etc.


Spare a little feedback, if you have a moment? :)

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