What’s at Stake?
Creating a serious edge-of-the-seat conflict in books…
There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying in higher education circles that academic politics are so nasty because the stakes are so low. It’s another way of saying that the intensity of a conflict should match what’s at stake. This is particularly true in thrillers. Who’d want to read about a protagonist fighting heaven and hell to get a stop sign installed? It might happen in real life, but that’s one of the cases where fiction shouldn’t mirror reality.
I remember an early reader of one of my first drafts telling me, “Meh. It’s okay, but there’s nothing at stake.” That sure made me sit up. It turns out he was right, and I made the necessary revisions. It also made me think about the idea of stakes and conflict in books.
Ignoring the round pole with a pointy end for the moment, the word stake has mostly monetary or financial associations. In gambling, it’s the money one bets. I can have a stake in a company. A competition or a race can have prize money at stake. In thrillers, however, stakes refers to what could happen if protagonists don’t prevail in their quests. It could be money, but more often than not, the threatening disaster goes beyond mere monetary losses. Often, it’s the survival of a country, or even the world. Think of the Cold War novels of John le Carré. At stake was the survival of the “Free World,” or at least the U.K. In the techno thrillers of Tom Clancy, the survival of the United States is at stake. And James Bond villains routinely have global aspirations, forcing 007 to save the world in every movie. The higher the stakes, the tenser the drama and the more satisfying the final payoff for the reader. At least, that’s the implication.
Is that always true? Maybe and maybe not. (Possible spoiler alert). My all-time favorite thriller, John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, turns the whole stakes question upside down. Sure, the novel revolves around very important issues. Testing unproven drugs on unsuspecting poor people in Nairobi’s slums is a big deal. But that isn’t what’s ultimately at stake. The real stake for Justin Quayle is understanding how he failed his dead wife. Something that seems small in comparison with the fate of the world or the malfeasances of global pharma corporations, but it drives him throughout the novel.
Or take Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. The stake is seemingly the solution of the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case and who stands to inherit a lot of money. But the real stake turns out to be the reputation of Sir Lester Deadlock, ironically something Sir Lester cares about far less than his scheming lawyer Tulkinghorn. Again, a rather small stake.
The Constant Gardener and Bleak House are such compelling stories because we readers get to feel the depth of the personal experience of the protagonist. We travel with Justin down the road that leads to his final insight. Nobody is saved, nobody but Justin is held responsible, but we still feel complete. The ending of Bleak House is somewhat more positive. But even here, the resolution is tinged with sadness that so much energy was expended on something that didn’t matter in the end.
It is clear that creating conflict in books increases the melodramatic effect of thrillers by manipulating our emotions. That’s fine. It makes for breathless reading late into the night. But unless we writers personalize these stakes, make them important to our protagonist, we do a disservice to our readers and ourselves as writers.
That’s where the adage from academia at the beginning ends up being more right than funny. The stakes may be low when viewed from the outside, but for the people involved, they are as high as they can be. Helping readers understand why our protagonists do what they do—how their history has led up to the current moment, how their past failures inform their current actions, decisions, and states of mind—makes for better reading than some abstract threat that the world is coming to an end. The conflict in books might just be what readers remember most about the story.
Michael Niemann is the author of the Valentin Vermeulen thrillers. The third in the series, Illegal Holdings, will be published on March 1 by Coffeetown Press in Seattle.