So what is Stakes Creep? It's not so much of a buzzword as it is a social phenomenon in the realms of storytelling, similar to the loudness wars of music. Incidentally, if you don't know what the loudness wars are, go and look it up, it's fascinating and it is in many respects the music industry equivalent of Stakes Creep.
Anyway, Stakes Creep is the supposed need to elevate the stakes in a story, both within subsequent installments in a franchise as well as on a macro level across all stories, mediums and genres. More action, more adrenaline, more...well, everything. Was Part One about saving a loved one? Then Part Two will be about saving the town, and Part Three will be about saving the world. It's this assumption that a story's stakes must escalate in scope and increase the number of lives on the line in order to escalate the tension and sense of threat.
Now, you don't need me to tell you that this is nonsense. Let's look at the Rambo movie series as an an example. Through Rambo one to four the kill count swells: it is 1, 12, 33 and 83 respectively. And yet Rotten Tomatoes scores put the movie scores at percentages of 87, 28, 36, 37. No correlation whatsoever: in fact Rambo - this poster boy of macho badassery - is most well received in the movie where he kills just one person.
Look to at how the battles grow exponentially in Lord of the Rings movies: the battle of Minas Tirith is 10 times bigger than that of Helm's Deep, and while that battle is awesome many people still prefer the battle of Helm's Deep in terms of sheer impact.
I could go on, but you get the point. You can probably think of some of your own examples of creeping stakes. But it's clear to see that bigger doesn't mean better, and it has been clear for a while now.
This inflation of stakes without any real feel of true increase in impact on the audience doesn't just happen within the cycle of a single story but on a macro level as well. It seems that you cannot move these days for movies, TV shows and books where the stakes creep has been maxed out for so long that the danger is "The world is going to end!" half of the time. And we've become so desensitized to an impending apocalypse in fiction that I don't think any of us have felt a sense of fear or danger from it for a long time. And yet it we still find our stories reaching for this ultimate high stakes.
So why? Why do we continue to insist that our fiction must have antagonistic forces that inflate a crisis far beyond the point where the stakes matter and to the point it becomes meaningless and ludicrous to the point it's actually detrimental?
Of course, there's the simple explanation that Hollywood in general has always equated bigger with better. But I think it's more complicated and entrenched than that. Here's my theory: if you rewind several decades, by most accounts the villains in pop culture were absolutely undesirable. They were cruel, conniving, lacked any realistic features or humanity...and they were roundly trumped by the forces of good time and time again. Even if the bad guy was supernatural - be it an evil witch or dark overlord - the story is already preset to push a moral, and the villain will scarcely use their powers in their clash with the good guys, making them appear incompetent. The stakes were pretty low, from beginning to end, with the villain bungling and failing at every turn. The message of the day was clear: being the bad guy doesn't pay, isn't fun, and you will never be better than the forces of good.
But then, as the world grew smaller and the last world war faded into memory, the enemies in our midst became less obvious, more difficult to put a face to or to pin down geographically. Who was good and bad in this new world order? Shades of grey started to appear. One man's terrorist, for example, is other man's freedom fighter. With this new and more complicated world, audiences wised up the fact that villains can actually be powerful, charismatic, have fun, be complicated...and outdo the protagonist. This is how we ended up with this swing in the balance of power. Antagonistic forces became increasingly powerful and omnipresent, to the point that they could even hold the fate of the world in their hands.
The trouble is, this escalation to incredible stakes doesn't speak to us, for two reasons: first, as an audience we respond better to what we can relate to. The end of the world? A disaster of that magnitude is something that none of us have experience in, so there's no emotion invested in watching a CGI planet Earth burn, only empty spectacle. Now to this, you could argue that there are many excellent war movies out there where you are on the edge of your seat during the battle scenes, truly invested in what is happening, even though 90% of the audience have had no first hand experience of war. And you are right, absolutely. But why is that?
Therein lies the key. Because talking about stakes creep is one thing, but having bigger stakes isn't the problem. The problem is what high stakes is mistaken for.
And we're running out of time here, so it looks like this going to have to continue on in another post. Next week we'll cover the second failure of Stakes Creep, and take a look at the differences between these vacuous high stakes and meaningful high stakes, how you can avoid the former and aim for the latter. And don't worry, Part Two of this post won't feature any more explosions than this one!