There’s an interesting trap in storytelling that is easy to fall into, and we think it’s great when we’re writing it, but it’s not always as fruitful as we writers think it might be. It’s what I like to call the High Stakes Fallacy, and my partner is the one who first alerted me to this storytelling trope, which is further discussed in the book Save the Cat.
In this post I’d like to discuss what I mean by the High Stakes Fallacy, the difference between high stakes and big stakes, why big stakes don’t always resonate, and why small (but still high) stakes can make for more interesting stories.
The High Stakes Fallacy
The High Stakes Fallacy is when writers confuse high stakes with literal world-ending, big, large stakes, and think that that’s enough to carry the story. Yes, stories always need to have high stakes because otherwise who cares and why are you reading the book or watching the movie anyway. What’s going on must be important, resonant, interesting, and it must affect the characters deeply. Stories are usually about the most important thing to ever happen to the main character, or, at least, a really, really, really, really important thing.
And since we need to have high stakes in stories in order for them to be worth telling, it’s really easy to keep increasing the size of the stakes until we get to world-ending or potentially world-ending situations, believing that this is the ultimate in high stakes. After all, what could be higher stakes than the world or universe itself ending?
Now, by itself, this type of plot is not inherently bad. Interstellar is about how the Earth is dying and humans need to find a new planet to call home. Those are big stakes. But, if you’ll recall, Interstellar is really about how Cooper regrets leaving his family and is doing everything he can to get home to his daughter. That’s the heart of the story, and it’s why we love that story so much.
The big stakes of needing to find a new home planet are certainly interesting and provide all the sci-fi fodder we could ever want. But without the heart of the movie, Cooper’s family, it doesn’t mean anything. If you don’t believe me, just try comparing Interstellar to Tenet.
And while leaving your family is certainly smaller stakes than the world ending, it’s still really high stakes, because, well, a lot is at stake. Leaving his family means Cooper will miss raising his children, seeing them grow up, miss all the important milestones in their lives, etc. Those are high stakes even though they’re not big, world-ending stakes.
The Difference Between High Stakes and Big Stakes
I’m not sure is “high” and “big” are the best terms to use here, but I’m trying to differentiate between “small” people-focused stakes and “big” world-ending stakes. Interstellar is a really good example of that, as I discussed above.
High stakes are any time there’s a lot on the line, which doesn’t necessarily mean the entire world has to be on the line. To use another Christopher Nolan film, Inception has high stakes but not big, world-ending stakes. In that movie, Dom, played by Leonard DiCaprio, needs to incept the character of Robert Fisher to get him to break up his father’s conglomerate, and the heart of the movie is that Dom needs to complete the mission so that he can finally get back to America and see his kids again. Both of these, what we can call the plot and the heart, are high stakes, but they’re not world-ending, apocalyptic, everyone-will-die stakes. Compared to that, they are small, but they’re high stakes to the characters.
And this, I think, is the main difference between high stakes and big stakes, and what makes high stakes much more interesting even if they are “small” people-focused stakes:
High stakes are important to the characters. And what’s important to the characters is important to us.
And that’s not to say you can’t have high stakes that are also big, world-ending stakes. It’s just to say that you can’t have big stakes without making them personal in some way to your characters. The world ending needs to be personal. This is why End Game and Infinity War were so successful and memorable even though they dealt with half-of-the-world ending stakes. It’s the idea that if Thanos snapped his finger, you or your partner would disappear, but you’re not both going to survive. Some of the Avengers even blipped. It felt more personal.
Perhaps a better way of looking at this is through the aforementioned lens of plot and heart.
Plot Is Easy, Heart Is Hard
My amazing partner and I talk about story and story-telling a lot. And on this subject, he once said, “Plot is easy. Heart is hard.” This encapsulates what I’ve been trying to articulate above about how it’s important not to confuse high stakes with big stakes.
Writers do this a lot when they think of a big-stakes concept, like the world ending and the superhero has to stop that from happening, without adding any personal stakes, without adding a heart to the story. So the world is ending. So what? Why is that personal and important to the protagonist? (Other than not wanting to die, of course.)
Going back to Interstellar, what’s the most memorable scene from that movie? Okay, the two most memorable scenes from that movie?
I’ll give you one clue: the two scenes that had the most heart.
These are also the two scenes where we see the highest stakes in the film. The real consequences of Cooper going on this mission: missing the lives of his children.
Heart like this is the most difficult part of a story to develop. It’s also why even though you’ll see a movie for example where a lot happens, you can still come away feeling like nothing happened. If you ever get that feeling, it’s because the plot was full of plot-ness and empty of heart-ness.
Small Stakes (aka Heart) Are More Interesting
Now, why are personal stakes better? For one thing, they’re more primal. Family, friendships, relationships, love, hate, we can all relate to these ideas and so they’re easy to get on board with. We can immediately hang our hats on Cooper’s relationship with his children, with Murphy in particular. It’s personal, it’s real, it means something. We all know what it’s like to have parents or not have them, miss them, wish they were here.
Big, world-ending stakes by themselves are simply too difficult to care about. This is also for a psychological reason. The entire world is literally too many people to care about. Psychologically, billions of people might as well be zero people. This article from Gizmodo talks about how humans lack the capacity to grasp ridiculously large numbers. You might have also heard a quote, usually attributed to Joseph Stalin (though the veracity of that is in question), that goes, “The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of a million, a statistic.”
This speaks to the same idea that we humans can’t comprehend large numbers. They essentially become meaningless to us. On the other hand, we’re really good at understanding small numbers because that’s what we evolved to do. We evolved to care about a small number of people in our tribe. It’s also why platforms like Twitter can cause so much anxiety: we simply didn’t evolve to have so many people in our tribe.
Given this, it’s easy to see why world-ending stakes can sometimes fall flat. We simply lack the capacity to care about so many people. We’re at our best when we care about a select few.
A good example of a small stakes story that packs a big heartfelt punch is Coco. If you haven’t seen this gem of a movie, you really must. Also, spoiler alert! The stakes in Coco are that Miguel wants to play the guitar and that his great-grandfather Hector is in danger of being forgotten. If you haven’t seen the movie, then this probably sounds like small beans. But, in true Pixar fashion, this movie will stab you right in the heart. This is not a story about the world ending. It’s literally about one single person at risk of being forgotten by his living descendants. But when you’re watching the movie, it becomes the most important thing in the world. For Miguel and Hector, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Moving away from the plot/heart aspect of this topic, another reason that big stakes can fall flat is that they are predictable.