I often get skeptical looks from people when I caution against making the stakes too high in a story. That’s probably because a lot of writing advice tells you to “raise the stakes!” and to “give your character more to lose!” This is generally good advice, but we have to remember that the stakes need to FEEL like the end of the world to the character and not necessarily BE the end of the world.
I’ve noticed this trend of making the stakes too high in some book and movie sequels recently. In a YA sci-fi sequel I was reading, for example, the story started with a shoot-out and a chase. While this was exciting stuff, it didn’t match the stakes in the first book. That story had been very internal, full of secrets and mystery. To go from psychological tension in the first book to what felt like an action flick in the second book seemed like a huge jump, one that raised the stakes dramatically and created a different type of story. The series didn’t feel cohesive because of it.
Similarly, I recently rewatched the Anne of Green Gables miniseries. I loved the first two movies when I was young, so I definitely shed a nostalgia tear or two when I was watching them this time around. I didn’t realize that there was a third installment (made in 2000) and I was eager to watch it. I have to admit that I was disappointed precisely because of the stakes issue.
Now, I haven’t read all the Anne books, so I’m not sure how true the miniseries was to them, and thus I’m only going to talk about the movies here. At the start of Anne’s story, the focus is all on everyday, small stakes. Oh no, someone called her Carrots! Oh no, she accidentally got her best friend drunk! Even though the stakes are sometimes life/death in the first movie (a friend’s sister falling ill or Matthew having a heart attack) the focus is still on the home and the daily stakes of Anne adjusting to her surroundings.
In the third movie, though, Anne finds herself in wartime, searching for Gil in the trenches, disguising herself as a nun, and getting shot at by Germans. It all felt a bit silly to me, mostly because it didn’t seem like it could be part of the same story. The stakes were suddenly so high that they felt absurd, and I didn’t believe them anymore.
Now, of course the stakes in a series have to escalate from book to book (or movie to movie) in order to keep audiences interested, but it’s important to make those stakes still feel genuine to the character and his/her world. Maybe you do need a shoot-out in your story, but be very careful of how and when you bring it in. Just because there’s a gun in the scene doesn’t mean the audience is automatically riveted. Often, there are a lot more interesting stakes you can explore for your character that don’t involve whizzing bullets and high-speed chases.