Raising the Stakes

Now that I’ve got some closure with my last WIP, I keep getting bits of ideas for another project. I don’t think I’ll start anything soon, but I’m happy to let them percolate for a while.

Thing is, every time I get an idea, I think “but would that really be an interesting story? Would the player be motivated?” My gut instinct is always to raise the stakes. A game about deer hunting? What if the deer shoot back? What if a mad scientist created animals that had a fighting chance and then they started wiping out the human race? So I’ve gone from a day out to saving the world. But is it really a better idea? Does everything have to turn into science fiction? Maybe I just need to stick with the original idea and tell it really well? Or maybe there’s another way to make a tall tale…

What do you do to make the player keep playing, or make the reader keep reading?

I have nothing useful to say, but that reminds me of:

I keep surprising myself, in every hour of work on the project. If I can’t manage to do that … constantly toss myself curveballs and constantly deal with them … I know it’s not going to be good enough to share, and I shut the project down. Note that I am, paradoxically, an obsessive planner … but it’s like the old Dwight Eisenhower line: plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. The stakes don’t need to change, specifically, but the landscape needs to buckle and curve. I have to constantly be spotting new things in the headlights, things that alarm me, that I can pass along to the reader/player.

Personal stakes can be as powerful as save-the-world stakes. Is the protagonist deer-hunting because he needs the food? Because it’s a form of bonding with his kids or his buddies? The only context in which he feels in touch with his deceased dad?

Maybe it’s a woman hunting the deer. Maybe she’s a big city girl who is trying to understand the hunting culture of her estranged small-town relatives. Maybe she’s got something to prove. Maybe there’s a competition that she wants to win, or she accidentally destroyed the taxidermied head inside the local lodge and she’s got to replace it. Maybe it’s a spiritual quest of some kind.

Maybe the deer is a weredeer, and the hunter is the mortal enemy of its human form, but it’s a lot easier to get away with revenge by shooting it when it’s in deer form.

The point is, there are lots of possible serious or semi-comedic answers to this question, belonging to lots of possible genres.

One thing the latest episodes of Doctor Who taught me is that there is no need to up the antes constantly.

A story where an everyday couple’s realxed diner is at stake can be every line as gripping and thrilling as a save-the-Earth-and-reboot-the-universe behemoth.

I suggest reading a few good books with a “modest” desaster scope (Dickens comes to mind) to get a feel for it.



Thanks, these are all great ideas. Keep 'em coming!


I want to see that game!

Raising the stakes is one way to make things interesting, but it shouldn’t be your only method. In fact, I would submit that the initial premise isn’t the ideal place to start with the raising of the stakes. Let’s go back to that initial premise for a moment. A game about deer hunting. Hmm…

Presumably, your gut reaction to that premise is that it’s too boring to be useful. You respond to that by raising the stakes; the reason this isn’t the time for doing that is that you don’t have a complete story premise to begin with. You don’t know what the stakes are. So back up a step and go back to “too boring to be useful”. Boring is a good place to be; it’s where you connect with your readers and pull them into the story. Don’t blow past this necessary intimacy by trying to introduce complications right off the bat. Explore the boring part a little bit. Why are we out deer hunting? What’s being neglected while we’re doing that? Have we covered all our bases and prepared well for this hunt? Is there a particular stag that’s been eluding our efforts, and “daring” us to come settle the score? Are our children going to starve if we don’t make this happen? Define the stakes. Make that personal connection with the reader. Maybe that tough old buck caused an accident a few years back that killed one of our relatives and somehow managed to survive. Maybe we want revenge. Maybe we’re coming of age, and this hunt is our rite of passage into adulthood.

Then again, maybe we just want venison sandwiches. That’s up to you as the writer.

Once you’ve done this (defined the premise/stakes), you can introduce elements that make it less boring and more interesting. You don’t have to throw dynamite into the mix. You just have to increase the tension in that personal connection you made when you defined the stakes. You can do this by degrees. It doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) an all-or-nothing proposition unless you’re doing a spoof or something.

Do this a few times (increasing the tension) and eventually you will have moved the story from the ordinary into an exploration of the extraordinary. Then if you still feel like going “all in” and it’s good for the story, do it. But it’s something you should usually build toward rather than begin with, in my opinion.

Thanks, Shades. Connecting with the reader at the beginning is something I had trouble with in my last game. Maybe the “it’s okay to be boring” approach would work better.

Oddly enough, I was waiting at the post office with my kids earlier today and they complained about being bored. I told them boredom was the true path to enlightenment, and to get more practice being bored, they should think of ways to make the situation even more boring.

Allow me to clarify that. When I said that boring is an excellent place to be, I meant it in the context of both figuring out your initial premise and beginning a story. I should have said that boring is an excellent place to begin. To say that it’s ok to be boring is to try and oversimplify the idea and potentially miss the point.

Take a read through the beginning of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, both excellent books. Pay close attention to where and how the stories begin. We don’t start with a “raising of the stakes” as you describe such a thing; we start with a plain old person in a plain old “boring” setting. The author shows us a day in the life of our new acquaintances, and then when we have an idea of what life is generally like for these people, the author begins to raise the stakes by degrees, or otherwise turn the plain old boring character’s plain old boring day upside down.

By the time the stakes have been raised, a bond has formed between the reader and the main character, and we’ve been pulled into the world the author painted for us and are now exploring it along with that character. That bond began forming during the opening of the story, before the raising of the stakes. Later complications might help cement that bond, but we as readers won’t tend to care about the plight arising from them if we don’t already have at least a tentative connection with the character by that point.

I guess I could put that more simply by supposing that the “boring” part at the beginning of the story is where we get to know the character. It’s up to you as the author to make sure the story isn’t boring, which is why I wouldn’t say that it’s ok to be boring. But when forming the initial premise and beginning the story (two different events and procedures here, it’s worth noting), boring is a great place to start, because it’s where everything begins. You might say it’s the common ground between the writer, the main character(s) and the reader.

So don’t be in a rush to raise the stakes right out of the gate, and at the very least make sure that you as the author know what the stakes are before you attempt to raise them.

I know what you meant. I’ve applied the same principle to music.