Low stakes scenes--what makes them tick?

Toby Frost

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I wonder if each book, to succeed, must define what "high stakes" are - basically, by what rules it works - so in a romance, it might be the wrong people getting together, and in an SF story it might be the end of the galaxy. I suppose you get stories where the high stakes aren't clear, just that something vaguely terrible will occur.

I was wondering about something like The West Wing, where although the various decisions the characters make carry weight, we never see the results, there's no violence and not much in the way of physical action or romance. The outcome is sometimes high stakes, but almost all the action is very low-key. I wonder in that situation if the story is carried by a mixture of sharp dialogue, a sort of pleasure in seeing things done competently, and seeing ideas being debated.
 

Toby Frost

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So I wonder if we have the following:

Things that work in a high stakes situation:

- intense action/violence
- direct threat of severe consequences to beloved character or whole setting/group etc

Things that work in a low stakes situation:

- looking at remarkable/beautiful things (sense of wonder)
- non-violent discovery of sinister things or growing intrigue/complexity (the plot thickens...)
- discussion by characters of situation (this can work as a recap for the reader, too)
- discussion of ideas directly relevant to the reader (politics, etc)
- development of character relationships, including dramatic positive events like romance
- humour
- a sense of things being done well (I've seen this described as "competence porn"!)

Some actions (planning an attack, say) would use two or more things off the list. I'd be interested to see if there are any more.
 

The Big Peat

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I'd be reluctant to use TV examples simply because audience expectations are different, but it's not that hard to find books that that generally eschew particularly dramatic stakes for much or all of a book. Wodehouse's Jeeves series might be the most immortal proponent of this art, but in more modern day fare, you get works like The Golem and the Djinni or The Goblin Emperor that do float for long periods on their characters' exploration of outlandish circumstances (and arguably get worse for trying to fit high stakes moments in). But yes, there are a *ton* of TV shows where it's simply about the same group of characters having the same conversations over and over with nothing much happening as a result, and it's all about the magic of sharp lines, facial expressions, and loving characters.

(Incidentally Toby's comment is making me wonder whether there should be a chart for Low/High Stakes and Low/High Action. Le Carre, or the TV show Line of Duty, will frequently have very low action - deliberately lowered - conversations or searches that have huge consequences; Action-Adventures aim for High Stakes, High Action, but are at risk of having Low Stakes, High Action, because nobody really believes anything of value is up to grabs; Low Stakes, Low Action covers comic interludes and so on.)

But in any case, what makes it work - beyond the joy of good writing - is making it matter to the characters. Which takes us back to what Toby said about defining the stakes a bit. A scene in which a grizzled private eye must deal with his mother snooping around his apartment is pretty Low Stakes by most standards, but if we know the private eye has a complicated relationship, and resents her being a busybody while wanting to avoid disappointing her or making her feel bad, then it has meaning to the reader.
 

ckatt

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there are a *ton* of TV shows where it's simply about the same group of characters having the same conversations over and over with nothing much happening as a result, and it's all about the magic of sharp lines, facial expressions, and loving characters.
To me though this looks like the difference between comedy and other genres. in comedy the joy comes from the jokes, not the story. Sure the story must be enjoyable but it's only there to create a situation for the comedy. Some, of course, do more than that but ultimately the purpose of a comedy is to make the audience laugh; everything else in it exists for that purpose. Cross-genres may do more than one thing. like say romantic comedy exists to give the payoff of romance with a story that also creates opportunities for jokes, thus appealing to a broader audience.


A scene in which a grizzled private eye must deal with his mother snooping around his apartment is pretty Low Stakes by most standards, but if we know the private eye has a complicated relationship, and resents her being a busybody while wanting to avoid disappointing her or making her feel bad, then it has meaning to the reader.
This I fear is becoming a little bit of a paradox, as I'm afraid many of the posts in this thread have. the example begins with a low stakes scene then is followed with a revelation that perhaps the stakes are higher than we expected. Emotional and social stakes matter just as much as life and death, sometimes more. So in the end it's not a low-stakes scene. In my initial post, I pointed out how it's difficult to find discussions about low stakes scenes and here we are having the same issue. All discussions of low stakes scenes quickly turn to discussions of higher stakes scenes. Finding the root of that may take its own thread...

Things that work in a low stakes situation:

- looking at remarkable/beautiful things (sense of wonder)
- non-violent discovery of sinister things or growing intrigue/complexity (the plot thickens...)
- discussion by characters of situation (this can work as a recap for the reader, too)
- discussion of ideas directly relevant to the reader (politics, etc)
- development of character relationships, including dramatic positive events like romance
- humour
- a sense of things being done well (I've seen this described as "competence porn"!)
This, Toby, is the kind of thing I'm after. In an earlier post, I suggested that the lowers stakes scene had to be more nuanced. yet after some observation, I do think it's possible to collate a list of the type of things that work in a low stakes scene. I think this is a pretty good start.
 

The Big Peat

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This I fear is becoming a little bit of a paradox, as I'm afraid many of the posts in this thread have. the example begins with a low stakes scene then is followed with a revelation that perhaps the stakes are higher than we expected. Emotional and social stakes matter just as much as life and death, sometimes more. So in the end it's not a low-stakes scene. In my initial post, I pointed out how it's difficult to find discussions about low stakes scenes and here we are having the same issue. All discussions of low stakes scenes quickly turn to discussions of higher stakes scenes. Finding the root of that may take its own thread...
How is the risk of having a few heated words and a bit of temporary uncomfortableness high stakes - particularly in a book where the main stakes are finding a murderer and the MC is at risk of death several times? Because personally this makes zero sense.
 

ckatt

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@The Big Peat When you put that it that way, maybe it does make zero sense.
In your example here, I'm not sure if you are talking about a specific book. It seemed hypothetical, but when you add more details "a book where the main stakes are finding a murderer and the MC is at risk of death several times" we have context that was not there before.

I'm sorry to be in a position where I have to mice words. I just what to clarify a misunderstood statement.
discussions of low stakes scenes quickly turn to discussions of higher stakes scenes
I didn't intend this to mean it was a high stakes scene. Just point out that the low stakes scene you began with had its stakes raised in the next sentence.


It's like Toby said, each book "must define what 'high stakes' are." So with no reference point, we have a scene wherein:
a grizzled private eye must deal with his mother snooping around his apartment
which you called low stakes. Then you raised the stakes:
the private eye has a complicated relationship, and resents her being a busybody while wanting to avoid disappointing her
With no other context for the story, I can't say what it would mean to him if he disappoints his mother.

Still, it seems to me that the suggestion here is that to make a low stakes scene work, you have to raise the stakes.
 

The Big Peat

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I guess I took it as read that any book where a grizzled private eye is a major character involves a murder with all that entails.

To go into detail - I'd say the extra detail isn't raising the stakes, it's explaining the stake. The scenario isn't different - it's still the mother snooping around - which means the stakes aren't different, but the extra detail of the why increases our investment in it. Which I guess, yes, does make the stakes higher, but it's still not *high* here, and it's more a case of "seem higher" rather than "is higher". The snooping could lead to a disaster with or without those details - but the details make it more interesting, more personal.

Does that make any more sense?
 

ckatt

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@The Big Peat
It does yes.
I suppose stakes could be divided into a few groups, individual character stakes, story stakes and audience stake.
In the end, it's audience investment that matters. So if the character's stakes are high so should the audience stakes be. But if the character has failed to grab the audience then we might just not care what happens.
I heard somewhere that it didn't really matter what your character was doing as long as it is important to them. And if the writer is successful in showing why it's important to the character it will be important to the reader.
I think life and death as stakes just take less explanation.


There is a scene in Seven Samurai where we watch an old farmer pick up individual grains of rice off the floor. I saw the move twenty years ago but that scene has always stuck with me. If someone spilled my rice, I would just vacuum it up. But the people in his village are starving so every grain matters.
 

tinkerdan

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Low stake scenes, tie-in pretty well with a discussion of Interiority.

Internal Monologue that helps show character motivation and often backstory.

The Undoing:
Does this throughout, and often too much in my opinion.
However, the author does it well and it keeps you reading--or at least it kept me reading.

In my writing I have some of that, I also have a lot of scenes that are low-stake.
Most of those are scenes that try to get at the motivation behind character actions.
All of it primarily moves the story forward and I think that moving forward is the momentum necessary to keep the reader in the story.

I also think that shorter chapters can be helpful as I've seen with Dean Koontz's writing.

So, writing what moves the story forward, has a place in the story(adds to and enhances), and is as long as it needs to be and no longer.
 

Topher

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I'm kind of wondering if the discussion of stakes confuses things a little, given that stakes don't disappear in low-action scenes. If our grizzled detective is trying to find the murderer, and spends a scene or two sat in her flat feeling bad and wondering why she can't find any more clues, the stakes are still those of whether the murderer gets found or not, and those stakes still depend on the outcome of that scene (does she give up trying? Does she realise clues are being systematically removed?). Other things might be going on in that scene, and that might introduce other, lesser "stakes", but the overall stakes are still there (if they're not relevant to the overall, larger stakes, the scene wouldn't be included). And the kind of things being described above (interiority/thought processes, humour, character relationships, etc) are ways of keeping these low action scenes interesting - not sure that "stakes" really comes into it here? (Sorry if I've misunderstood your point.)
 

ckatt

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@Topher
I think it depends on how you want to categorize things. We can look at story level stakes and at scene level stakes.
Let's say our character had to get to another city and is trying to buy a car that cant be traced. So in this hypothetical scene, the stakes are how much money he is going to spend. the seller knows he's desperate and wants a high price but the buyer obviously wants to keep as much of his money as he can.
so what are they story stakes? maybe he's searching for his missing daughter. But the reader knows he won't find her here. so while that is looming over the scene it's not the immediate problem. the stakes in this scene are will he gain a car and what will it cost him.
In a later scene, let's say he's has gotten the car and is on his way. In order to avoid detection, he has taken a dangerous route through the mountain and a rock slide begins to cover the road. The cheap car that he paid too much for is now struggling to stay on the road and there is a sheer wall on one side and a cliff on the other. Now the scene stakes are life and death. But in both scenes, the ultimate stake is his daughter, though he will get her back in neither.
But looking at just the scene level stakes, the car buying scene is much lower stakes than the avalanche scene.

So what I'm really interested in is how other writers build a strong scene when the immediate stakes of that scene are much lower than the immediate skates of other scenes in the book.

One way of doing that may be reminding the reader of the book level stakes while the tension is low. But to a degree that is shifting the focus out of the scene.
Another way might be implying inquiry pot thread, focus the slower scene on the characters need to answer a question. If the reader wants it answered as well, they will keep reading.

I have lots of ideas but I'm interested in how other writers approach this problem without creating scene-level stakes that feel artificially inflated.
 

sknox

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I'm not sure there's a clear "how" for this. When I'm writing, I'm not thinking too much about levels of tension, though I do look for this in later edits. But I do want every scene to matter, and the only way I know how to work that is to make the scene matter to the MC (or to whomever is the POV for that scene), and sometimes to secondary characters. This is hardest to do in early scenes, because the reader hasn't fully bonded with the characters.

How do I make the stakes matter? It's pretty much as I said before: by denying success. The character wants something. They either don't get it at all, or get it with difficulty and not without complications, repercussions, consequences. Sometimes, that success or failure or consequence of either can tie into story-level stakes, and it's great when that works. Sometimes it's more localized, or the effect weighs more on a secondary character.

I guess the thing not to do is to have that low-level scene have no connection and no consequence. I'm thinking what many people call an infodump might fall into that. The campfire scene where characters inform the reader of history or the mechanics of a device or the like. Everyone goes to sleep, gets up the next day, and the story starts up again.

It's ever so much easier to talk about what *not* to do in writing. In all art, really. Don't play the wrong note doesn't help much in knowing how to play the right one!
 

tinkerdan

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I'm not sure we are talking about stakes in the same way throughout this thread.
In fact I think it's important to figure out the difference between.
Goals, conflicts and stakes.

.
 

ckatt

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@tinkerdan
That article squares pretty much with the way I see it:

Goal is what the character is trying to get.
Stakes are what the character stands to lose.

from the article:
"The goal is the driving force of the plot. The protagonist wants something. "
"Stakes are what happens if they don't succeed."



I would say though, that stakes can also encompass goal. In so far as a goal may be to preserves something. ie a character's life. so their goal might be to stay alive which is the same as their life being at stake.

But you are right. I suspect a few of us in this thread are looking at it differently.
I might have done well to give my definitions in the initial post.
 

Steve Harrison

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This thread has made me think, something I generally avoid as I prefer to write and not think.

My conclusion - and the reason I don't want to think - is that there is a danger that all the incalculable bits and pieces that go into producing a piece of writing can take on an individual importance that can detract from and hamper the overall process. The stakes and tensions I carry with me - which translate into content - are due to the fear that a reader can at any moment abandon my novel, so my entire stategy while writing is to do everything in my power to prevent that from happening.

You can see why I don't like to think.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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But something may matter a lot to the reader without particularly mattering to the MC. For instance, something was said earlier about discovery. Getting the answer to some question readers have about the MC may matter a lot to them, whose curiosity has been denied for a while, but if it something the MC already knows the timing of the revelation to others may or may not matter to them.

Getting a new piece to any puzzle concerning characters or plot which has been occupying readers for some time may keep them eagerly reading (as it suggests that other pieces and finally the full picture will be eventually provided).
 

bretbernhoft

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The best advice I've ever been given concerning these "low stake scenes" is to ensure that they're plainly interlinked with the rest of the story. They should act as bridges between the highs and the lows, even being front and center stage in your story; if need be.
 
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