Extra Credits is one of my favorite video series. I’ve posted a few things they do because so much of their analysis doesn’t just apply to video games (though that’s great to watch too) but to storytelling overall.
What they’re covering today is the concept of creep, or how things tend to escalate in story. They cover a lot of good examples, mostly gaming, but I want to apply it to writing.
So many series are constantly escalating things because they feel it’s required to keep their reader’s interest. The example I ‘ve been thinking of is Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. 99.9% of the time I refer to this series (and I refer to it a lot) in a good way, but this is one of the instances I feel like it’s starting to falter. As it has gone on, the stakes have gotten higher. He started out investigating a murder and in the last few books is saving the whole fucking universe. For the most part, I have loved that. Harry has grown into an incredibly dangerous Wizard with a vast array of powers, armaments, allies, and enemies. It’s everything I hope to one day do with my story. But not every book. I like some of the personal, more intimate stakes throughout the series.
Let me explain why.
With your character, and most of your readers, the first circle is probably your family and/or friends. Beyond that you might have your city, your nation, your planet, etc. If the Big Bad of the week is threatening your city of your planet, that’s terrible of course. Anything from tens of thousands (if you live in my neck of the woods) to millions or billions of lives are at stake. But if they’re threatening your family, guess which you might care more about. A lot of the Dresden Files books didn’t have anything to do with Events At Large. There wasn’t deep shit going down, but it was still important. This character or that character, people who were The Most Important Thing to Harry Dresden were put in danger. More importantly, when this happens they’re usually characters with massive fan bases all by themselves, who people have invested a lot in.
Yeah, I know, if someone is threatening your planet they’re more than likely threatening your family as well, but you know what I mean.
My point is this, stakes are relative. There’s a scene in Angel (don’t look at me like that) where a character could be saved but only at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. He turns to the other characters and says, “screw the world.”. If you’ve watched the show, you know what scene I’m talking about and it’s a big deal when it happens. The stakes are there, and for the character and the viewers, we cared more about that one person than a city.
You don’t have to up the game each time. Your character doesn’t have to go from saving his neighborhood, to his town, to his county, to his state, to his country, to his planet, to his galaxy…on, and on, and on. If people invest in the details of your story, they will invest in the risk to those details. Your character’s “world” doesn’t have to be the planet or their home or any of the big, macro things that are obviously important. So many times they’re that one person they care about or their family, their home, their pet, their soul.
Anyone who has read the Dresden Files knows they care a hell of a lot more about Mouse than they do Chicago.