So now we know what stakes creep is how can we avoid it? What can we do to avoid that vacuous spiral of meaningless spectacle?
Ah, well you see, that's the thing: there's nothing wrong with big spectacle and set pieces per se. The problem is when they are vacuous and lack any real heart. When was the last time you watched or read an epic battle sequence and felt any true sense of peril? If it was recent, then I am confident that it was quite a rare occurrence, no?
The mistake that big spectacle and high stakes make is a misunderstanding in what the narrative assumes the audience cares about. Put it this way: imagine an empty building collapsing. Perhaps it was a demolition site or something. Can you picture it? Now, do you particularly care? Probably not. Sure, it might incite a few "ooh"s and "aah"s from you but that's about it. Basically, it's a vacuous spectacle.
Now, imagine people in that collapsing building. How do you feel now? In terms of investing in the story emotionally, this now gives you some blips on the radar, because their are humans involved. It is no longer just blind spectacle but a very real danger to vulnerable people.
Let's go one step further. Let's put some developed characters into that collapsing building. A single mother of two dashing back to her apartment to grab her newborn infant. The recluse suffering from PTSD after returning from a war zone. The elderly cripple who can barely move.
Imagine you've spent some time in the company of these people already. The story has given you time to get to know these characters, to know their hopes and fears, what makes them tick, their morally grey areas...
Now imagine them all in that building as it crumbles. Now we're fully invested in these characters as we fear for their lives, and we see their strengths and weaknesses come into play. You're probably already thinking of some of the ways in which these character's actions will play out as they scramble to survive. And I guarantee that, as you think about that, the whole concept of the collapsing building has faded into the background.
This is the key point. This is the second reason that Stakes Creep tends to fail, which I didn't get around to in my previous post. It is assumption that the audience really cares about the spectacle, the fireworks, the explosions and flashing lights.
Oh sure, it's fun and thrilling, but you don't actually CARE. What you care about are the characters mixed up in the midst of the chaos. They should be at the heart of the spectacle, and the focus must be firmly on them so that the spectacle forms a mere backdrop to their plight. Look to the movie 'Children of Men' as a stellar example of this. The torn-up war zone set piece at the end of the movie could've easily descended into another generic big climatic battle. Instead, watch as the camera remains firmly fixed on Theo for the entire duration. The peril is palpable, the empathy is real, and the spectacle and stakes surrounding him are true to the moment.
But wait a minute, you might think: I can still think of plenty of movies and books where the spectacle is is still focused around a character but I still feel a complete lack of investment in their plight. Why?
Well, that's because the story has given you no indication up to that point that it is willing to injure, harm or kill off characters. Think of the first Hobbit movie, as the heroes run from walkway to bridge to escape the goblins. Arrows and sharp debris fly in all directions, they fall into a chasm at terminal velocity and they all walk out without so much as a scratch. The Transformers movies and most hard-boiled action movies are like this. From the get go it is clear that the protagonists are going to survive the ordeal unscathed, so the narrative scrambles to throw faux peril at you, as if to say "Look, they really are in trouble! See, they now have a sexy scar on their cheek from that sword slash, they really can get hurt!" Which is of course nonsense. So you the audience watch these bloated sequences with all the investment of watching a fireworks display: pretty, but devoid of heart.
Look to the battle of Helm's Deep for a masterclass of how it should be done. This is a battle where all of our major heroes survive. So what does it do differently? How does it make us care? Well, the peril doesn't need to be directly intertwined into the spectacle itself. It can implied, or established beforehand. Watch the buildup to the battle from the moment the first splashes of rain fall, clattering on armor.
Cut to women and children in the cave, terrified, clutching their loved ones.
Aragorn walks between the elves with a pep talk.
The Orc army stops short of the wall.
Back to the cave. A baby's cry echoes through it.
Aragorn steps out, beholding the Orc army with a grimace.
The Orc army begins stamping.
Aragorn draws his sword.
Bows are drawn.
Back to cave. The stamping rolls over them like earthquake.
The first arrow flies.
The Orc army charges.
Theoden whispers: "so it begins..."
Now if you're like me and you got goosebumps just thinking about that scene, then that is because this buildup establishes the heart and peril before the battle truly erupts. Who are the main players we care about? Why are they here? Why are they fighting? It's all made clear, and is devastatingly effective. Seeing the cut from the Orc army to the terrified women and children to Aragorn drawing his sword sears real, meaningful stakes where you feel a genuine concern for the welfare of your beloved characters and the ones they fight to protect. This results in the battle of Helm's Deep being a powerful set piece that has a real, visceral impact on the audience. The spectacle isn't just spectacle for its own sake: it is real and terrifying. And once again, the difference between a meaningful and vacuous battle comes down to effective use of characters.
There is nothing wrong with high stakes and high spectacle, but we must understand that that is not what the audience truly cares about: that is mere window dressing. It is the characters that your audience will cling to and empathize with as the set pieces play out around them. Give your audience a reason to care about that character in that moment, and everything else will fall into place.