Low stakes scenes--what makes them tick?

ckatt

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Not every scene can be high-stakes. I'm sure we all know this. If every sense were too high tension, there would be no ups and downs and we would leave the reader numb. Still, we want the low stakes scenes to be interesting and keep the reader hooked. I've been searching the web for articles about this but evening I find is pointed at raising the stakes and uses major climactic scenes as examples. I can't find much of anything on how to put together a compelling low stakes scene.
 

Topher

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I read a book a while ago - Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell - that talked about this a bit. Probably not to the level of detail you're after, but might be worth a look
 

ckatt

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@Topher thanks for the suggestion. I've read that book before, maybe a year ago. I'll have to take another look at it.(y)
 

msstice

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I imagine it would depend on genre. I have K.M Weiland's book which talks about the structure of a scene, and they talk about the "sequel" part, which I think corresponds to your "low stakes" part.

I would not classify things as "low stakes" but rather a rest or pause, where you can orient the reader, fill in some backstory, and set up for the next exciting bit.
 

ckatt

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@msstice
Yes, I'm aware of the scene and sequel designations. They originate from Swain's book Techniques of the Selling Writer. Sequal certainly can be Low stakes as Swain describes, but sequel is where the pov character thinks about what happened and decides how to act next. There is no immediate threat though there still may be something at stake if the character makes a poor decision.
(A good explanation of the two can be found here Writing The Perfect Scene: Advanced Fiction Writing Tips)

I'm thinking more about scenes where the POV character has something to gain but little to loses. Like in say a detective story where the detective is questioning a possible witness. Maybe the witness has some useful info and maybe not. But if the witness has nothing in the end, the detective won't necessarily lose something big, just wasted some time.
 

msstice

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I'm thinking more about scenes where the POV character has something to gain but little to loses. Like in say a detective story where the detective is questioning a possible witness. Maybe the witness has some useful info and maybe not. But if the witness has nothing in the end, the detective won't necessarily lose something big, just wasted some time.
I'd say, in general, such matters are best conveyed by telling very briefly.

However, for the specific examples given, the story can be cast such that stakes are high.

1. The detective (POV) is questioning the suspect. It's high stakes for the suspect, so it's actually high stakes for the story
2. The detective (POV) is questioning a witness, but every minute spent here is a minute the criminal can escape
 

ckatt

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1. The detective (POV) is questioning the suspect. It's high stakes for the suspect, so it's actually high stakes for the story
I hadn't looked at it that way before. interesting.

But ultimately I'm not wondering how to raise stakes. I'm wondering about scenes that have low stakes. The conflict may have later repercussions but if by the end of the scene they have not reached their goal, what do they lose then and there?

Take, for example, the scene in Starwars when Luke tells his uncle that he thinks the new droids mean that he can apply to the academy this season. Lukes goal is to get his Uncle to consent but by the end, his uncle has given a hard no. Now there are stakes here for Luke; his future. But his uncle's "no" only maintains the status quo. Luke hasn't given up anything. He had nothing to lose by asking. Still luke leaves the table in a bad mood. Luke's hopes are dashed again, so it's certainly a loss. But the stakes in that scene are far lower than others in the movie. When Luke is fighting for his life and the lives of so many others.

I've been reading a lot about scene structure lately and everyone always talks about the high stakes scenes and how to make the stakes higher.

What of the lower stakes scenes?
 

DLCroix

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Hi! I think there are other aspects involved here in terms of what you understand as interesting. Because if you only consider it in terms of the rhythm of the action, IMHO I think you are wasting many other resources that produce interest in a text and allow the reader to enjoy that text.
Some examples:
* Without falling into a stylistic display, you can set yourself the goal that each paragraph itself has some element of interest. This can be a play on words (Ellroy), a detail of elegance (Burgess), descriptions (Pérez-Reverte), lists (Borges), encirclements without respite (Bolaño; Pérez-Reverte in the battle sequences, Cabo Trafalgar is a classic in that, the final scene of Gibson's Neuromancer), etc.
* The tourist aspect. Many writers forget that people love to read on the beach. My recommendation is that you always associate the scenes with a street, a city, so that you can give some reference to it, nothing very extensive.

* The stylistic resources of prose itself.
*Descriptions. They should not be enumerations, the objective of a list is to produce an overlay; that of a description is to characterize.

*Ellipse. Which are also understood as frames. According to this, the story must be understood as a chain in which the development of the premise has to be shown. The most basic example of a detective novel, for example, is often that the protagonist is looking for something that was on his nose all the time or even sometimes the MC is the target of that search and only knows it at the end. But there are also a lot of minor character arcs or solutions to other MC problems.

*Space time game. Alteration of events. Define whether what you are going to write is a diegesis or a mimesis.

*The personality of the narrator. Look for a type of storyteller who feels like the guy is next to you telling you something; not a guy giving a lecture. Make him an accomplice of the reader, ask him questions, be funny or ironic, radical or erratic; As long as what you say has substance, you will always be a more engaging storyteller even if you tend to screw up or make wrong judgments precisely because it will feel more human.

More or less these are the ones that occur to me at the moment.
 

Steve Harrison

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I don't think about anything in terms of high stakes; I just ask myself if a scene advances the story, develops character, is it interesting/adds to the story in any other way or is it required for pacing purposes. In other words, is it necessary?

Whether the reader thinks it's necessary is an entirely different thing...
 

HareBrain

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I would not classify things as "low stakes" but rather a rest or pause, where you can orient the reader, fill in some backstory, and set up for the next exciting bit.
I don't think about anything in terms of high stakes; I just ask myself if a scene advances the story, develops character, is it interesting/adds to the story in any other way or is it required for pacing purposes. In other words, is it necessary?
I agree "stakes" might not be the most useful way to think about this. Of course you do want high-stakes scenes, maybe a succession of them with the stakes rising and then the mini-climax; but you also need pauses, and the crucial thing here I think is to make them quietly interesting.

In the detective interview example, there might be various ways to achieve this, by revealing something about character or past or future events. But if none come to mind, then if a quiet scene isn't needed at that point for pacing purposes, maybe it can happen "off-screen" or be summarised.
 

Brian G Turner

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Not every scene can be high-stakes. I'm sure we all know this. If every sense were too high tension, there would be no ups and downs and we would leave the reader numb. Still, we want the low stakes scenes to be interesting and keep the reader hooked. I've been searching the web for articles about this but evening I find is pointed at raising the stakes and uses major climactic scenes as examples. I can't find much of anything on how to put together a compelling low stakes scene.
I think it's better to think in terms of conflict rather than stakes. Stakes simply tells you whereabouts in the structure of the story the scene fits in, but a character's internal conflict can drive any scene. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder might help you with this, along with explanations of the beats and pauses used in screenwriting which are equally applicable to novels.
 

Toby Frost

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In a detective story there won't usually be frequent physical conflict. There might be some arguments, but ultimately the crime is going to get solved because that's what the characters and the reader are there for. So, I'd suggest that the key factors are intrigue and discovery. The question being answered is "What is really going on here?"

I reckon that ghost stories and some horror stories work in the same way. In fact, the lack of direct conflict is important: the ghost/monster is scary because it is only hinted at. So what's drawing us through these scenes is discovering more and a sense of increasing menace. Sandy Petersen once compared Lovecraft's stories to an onion: as the story goes on, the characters peel away different layers, and each layer is more sinister than the one before (and everyone ends up crying). So you can have menace without conflict. (Then there's the possibility of conflict, where, say, a character is hiding and worries about being found, which can be very powerful.)

Low tension scenes are useful because they break up the mayhem and allow characters to talk about other things and broaden their characters, which in turn makes the reader care more about them and want them to win when the conflict begins. The obvious example is two characters getting romantically involved whilst fighting a shared enemy. We can also learn more about the setting and background, which probably goes to the "discovery" element.

Really, the important thing is that the story is interesting enough to make the reader want to go on. Conflict is a very good way of doing this, but so also is discovery and the sense of moving towards a resolution or explanation of all the questions that the story asks.
 

tinkerdan

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I have read some books like this.
I'm sure we all know this. If every sense were too high tension, there would be no ups and downs and we would leave the reader numb.
However there are some that do work and work well.
For instance Dean Koontz's Jane Hawk series.
His chapters are all short and he has three story threads with different characters that will eventually cross each other.
So he has a tense scene often leading to a very critical moment and then goes to the next thread to a different scene different critical moment and then the third to a third and different scene to critical moment.

Again they are all short chapters and he does a restart after the third separate scene and evert so often he doubles up the same thread in two chapters.

And though infrequent--there are some chapters that are set aside for non-action non-breathless material.

However, this is the time to do a tense emotional scene that is important to the plot.
Also this is the time to present critical material that moves the plot along and does not have all the tense moments.
Always think in terms of how the scene\thread moves the story forward and what it contributes to the story and the reader that can't be accomplished in those other tense chapters.

This is also a good time to go overboard with interiority...

something being discussed in the thread inserted here^
 

sknox

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We don't even have to talk about high and low, just lower. Not every scene has the same level of tension, conflict, stakes, whatever. Some are lower. Ckatt is asking about those.

I try to approach such a scene in terms of what a character wants. To continue with the example provided, the detective wants some answers--maybe to some specific questions, maybe just poking around trying to sniff out a break. In any case, it's a scene in between scenes, moving the story along, surely necessary but not high stakes.

OK, so, don't give him what he wants. The person being questioned refuses to answer. Or lies and the detective knows it. Even if the lead gained from the scene turns out to be a dead end, it's not won without a bit of conflict. With that established, there's room for layers. Maybe the detective employed more force than necessary, threatened needlessly, or lied himself. Maybe he made a promise he's going to have to keep later but doesn't want to. Entanglements.

Anyway, the key is to have some small thing that's wanted by a character and they don't get it. Or get it delayed, or only in part. Anything except getting exactly what they wanted.

There are other angles to take. For example, the detective might get a surprise--a bit of kindness, or courage, or even a physical surprise. Lucky break. Enough to keep going to the scene where there's real payoff. Since we're on the subject of detectives, Raymond Chandler does this well.
 

ckatt

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Lots of interesting feedback here lots to think about.
Thanks all

Low tension scenes are useful because they break up the mayhem and allow characters to talk about other things and broaden their characters, which in turn makes the reader care more about them and want them to win when the conflict begins. The obvious example is two characters getting romantically involved whilst fighting a shared enemy. We can also learn more about the setting and background, which probably goes to the "discovery" element.
It's not that I'm having a huge trouble writing such scenes but that I don't I feel that I have a guidepost. With high tension scenes, I know what to do. Make the stakes big and make them hard to win and easy to loses. Show the character struggle and have them give up something in order to get the goal.
But with low stakes scenes, it seems foggier to me on what will make or break them. Perhaps there is a longer list of variables. That's why I'm interested in how others approach it

OK, so, don't give him what he wants. The person being questioned refuses to answer. Or lies and the detective knows it. Even if the lead gained from the scene turns out to be a dead end, it's not won without a bit of conflict. With that established, there's room for layers. Maybe the detective employed more force than necessary, threatened needlessly, or lied himself. Maybe he made a promise he's going to have to keep later but doesn't want to. Entanglements.
Reminds me of a class I took with Mary Robinette Kowal. Where she was talking about try/ fail cycles. the result of a scene will either be YES the character got their goal or No they did not. She then says that if it's a YES the character may also lose something else, so a YES, BUT. Or, if they didn't get their goal, it could be a NO, BUT they did get something else or NO, AND some other bad thing occurred. There is also the YES, AND something else good happened. But that one should not be used very much. And I'm thinking pretty much never in a low stakes scene.
 

sknox

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There ought also to be high rewards scenes. Where the hero(es) win something. The denouement could have this (e.g., final scene in Star Wars IV), but there could be other places along the way. Not many, maybe none. But it does qualify as another sort of scene, and if there are high-rewards scenes, then there could also be low-rewards scenes. Finally got that cup of coffee!
 

JimC

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I think two authors who handle this quite well are Jim Sallis and John D McDonald.
 

AnyaKimlin

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The high stakes of the overall plot should still be running through the scenes with less action. There can still tension, humour, pathos, stress in a scene that is quieter.
 

The Big Peat

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This may not be particularly helpful but it seems to me that the main things that make high stakes scenes interesting are the same as in low stakes scenes - the turns of phrase, the attachment to characters, the observations, the worldbuilding, the laughter and sorrow, and so on. The tension of high stakes can't carry scenes all by itself or anywhere close; someone who has good high stakes scenes will probably have good low stakes scenes for much the same reasons.

There is more to this, and I will probably return to it at some time that's not 2 in the morning, but picking interesting scenarios and writing well about them is a ton of the battle.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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It depends on the book. Some classic books don't have many high stakes scenes at all, and yet you know for almost all of the book what the stakes are, and can see how everything relates to those stakes in some way, no matter how small. Modern SFF tends to feed an appetite for lots of tension, action, and conflict, but even there we find well-loved books where the pace is slower, or where there are many scenes of humor, beauty, wonder, etc. in between the scenes of action and conflict. Every scene should have something that engages readers, ideally in more than one way, but what means are possible for each particular story depends on the plot and characters.
 
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