You’ve got a story. Your protagonist wants something, and somebody else intends to stop them. Whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, there will be consequences: something is at stake. Sometimes this means the world ends if they fail, or sometimes what’s at stake is a deeply personal gain or loss.
Right now, though, I want to talk about really low stakes. Not just “her girlfriend dies” instead of “the world ends.” Lower than that.
What I really want to talk about is the Great British Baking Show.
The Great British Baking Show follows in well-trodden reality-TV footsteps: A dozen amateur bakers gather in a tent to bake very complicated, very British desserts. Every week, the person who performs least well goes home. At the end, one Star Baker is chosen, and they get … some sort of cake display dish or something.
The contestants are stressed, and earnest, and extremely kind to each other. They live in terror of the judges telling them their dessert was “a bad bake.” They’re all lovely people, and it’s sad when one leaves, but you know they’ll be okay. The most scandalous thing that’s ever happened was a contestant got frustrated by a melted cake and threw it away. (He apologized immediately.)
It sounds like it shouldn’t be that suspenseful or engaging. It is extremely suspenseful and engaging.
I feel like I don’t see this acknowledged enough: that with a good setup, you can be just as gripping with fluffy stakes as with dire ones. There’s this idea among writers sometimes that suspense requires a plausible threat of death. Kill off a major character, so the reader knows you’re for real. Show them anyone can die.
“Anyone can die” works great. When it’s right for the story.
I’m a Firefly fan–you remember Joss Whedon’s early-aughts space Western TV show? The joy of Firefly was actually a lot like the Great British Baking Show. Yeah, the caper of the week might go well, or it might go badly, but it was never going to go that badly. The real point was how the characters looked out for one another. They rarely admitted how much they cared, but you saw it deep down.
And then they made the movie-sequel Serenity. Serenity is what I mean when I say “anyone can die” isn’t always good.
Don’t be afraid to kill when it’s right for the story. Hell–when it’s right, go ahead and massacre. But also, don’t be afraid to keep your stakes small when they’re meant to be small. Not every story is Game of Thrones, and not every story should be.
The low-stakes road is not easy. You don’t have a plot that will keep readers’ hearts in their throats, so you need beloved characters instead. If the stakes aren’t life or death, you’ve got to show why they matter just as much.
Every story gets to define what death is in that story. It can be a literal death, but it isn’t always.
Look at Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie is caught between the dual threats of losing her entire social world by failing to marry or entering into a contract as miserable and soul-destroying as her parents’ marriage. Look at Firefly, where we pretend characters might die, but the real danger is they’ll lose the small piece of family they’ve found in an unforgiving universe. Look at The Great British Baking Show, where going home isn’t so bad, but becoming Star Baker is a moment of glory these people have dreamed about and worked their asses off for.
Set up your stakes and your world right, and you don’t need “anyone can die.”
A bad bake is scary enough.