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TrickyFiction
04-24-2007, 04:37 AM
In most of the fantasy I've read, the stakes are high. If the hero doesn't succeed, either the whole world, all of civilization, or at least an entire country will fall to bits. I am writing a YA fantasy in which the stakes are small, by comparison. One person's life is on the line. I wonder, does this work in fantasy? Do any of you know some examples of fantasy (especially YA) with small stakes like that?

WildScribe
04-24-2007, 04:43 AM
The book I am working through in my head is like that, and while I cannot remember any titles at the moment, I know I have seen other books like that before. It works fine as long as it is well done. (The stakes in my book are one life, also :))

Sage
04-24-2007, 04:44 AM
Some people like grand sweeping world-on-the-line stakes in fantasy (or thrillers). Some people like smaller stakes. What's important is that you write the story so that the reader cares about the stakes, whatever they are. I think both can work, myself, & enjoy reading either type.

Lyra Jean
04-24-2007, 04:47 AM
I can't remember the title or author sorry.

It's been a while since I've read and it was sort of a fantasy SF mix. A human colony ship was heading toward a new planet. On this new planet were a race of people that could astral projection. It was a normal thing for them. The native girl astral projected herself onto the ship and got stuck there. The human boy figured out that she was slowly dying since she was not in her body and he saved her.

There was this other plot about everyone's auras and how it showed spiritual/emotional sickness and that the humans needed to be healed. The boy's aura was not sick. This did not come until the end of the story it came out slowly during the story. It didn't really get into "your going to take over my race and we'll all die if y'all aren't healed though."

Maybe someone has heard of this story and can give you the title and/or author.

The Grift
04-24-2007, 04:51 AM
In fantasy, small stakes are best used on small vampires.

:D

Seriously, though, I feel your pain. I always hear that the stakes have to be high. But seriously, how many times can you save the world? And quite honestly, smaller stakes are probably easier to relate to. Remember the first couple of pages of a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was something like he couldn't wrap his head around the fact that the Earth was destroyed, or even London, but he COULD understand that McDonald's was gone. I would imagine in a YA novel, personal stakes might even be more effective than save-the-world stakes.

I am unpublished, but I think Sage is right. Just make sure whatever the stakes are, the reader is invested.

Toothpaste
04-24-2007, 04:52 AM
Wasn't the film Labyrinth about a girl rescuing her baby brother? That's a personal thing, nothing to do with the world ending. I think as long as the conflict is meaningful to the MC, that's the most important part.

TrickyFiction
04-24-2007, 05:11 AM
Wasn't the film Labyrinth about a girl rescuing her baby brother? That's a personal thing, nothing to do with the world ending. I think as long as the conflict is meaningful to the MC, that's the most important part.

Yes, I remember that film. That's a good example, I think.

I was also trying to remember what was at stake in Howl's Moving Castle just now, and I don't think it was huge. It was just Howl, right? Ah, it's been awhile since I've read that. I know that in the film, they raised the stakes of that story by quite a bit.

Both those stories almost feel like fairytales though. I wonder what makes them feel that way. Is it just the small stakes, or something else?

Death Wizard
04-24-2007, 06:34 AM
You pose an interesting question. And if the question is interesting, the story probably is interesting, as well. Your cleverness will pay off in the end.

Libbie
04-24-2007, 07:16 AM
The one I'm working on now has relatively small stakes. It involves the rise of one political party over another. Not really the end of the world or the equivalent of Satan taking over or even a lot of people dying. Just the stakes of how the main characters' lives will be changed if it happens one way or the other.

Boy, I hope it ends up interesting somebody other than me!

One fantasy novel I can think of that has pretty small stakes, all things considered, is Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card. It involves the freeing of a few gods from imprisonment, but that's practically a backstory. The main point of the book is one boy's life - the decisions he makes (that incidentally undo some "dark magic"-type stuff and also free those trapped gods) but most importantly, whether he is sentenced to death or allowed to live for the things he has to do in order to get from point A to point B. It's a very interesting fantasy and worth reading just for the extremely unusual narrative voice - but beware, it deals frankly with some pretty dark subjects such as child rape.

Sage
04-24-2007, 07:18 AM
We also had a similar discussion last month about stakes (it's buried a few pages back in this forum, though):

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=57483

That discussion actually started out in the opposite direction. The OP wondered whether "saving the world" was too high of stakes. IIRC, there was much discussion about whether having something so big be what's at stake would make the reader feel too detached from it. Of course, with saving the world also comes saving the MC (or not), their friends, their family, & so on, so it can be grand AND personal, if (as always) done right.

The grand "saving the world" fantasy plot sometimes comes about because an author feels it's expected (along with elves or magic or a quest, not that any of these are necessarily bad), & therefore can potentially be seen as a cliche of fantasy writing, & I think that makes it a little harder to "sell" the story to an agent/publisher. So, I think the smaller stakes might make your novel a little easier to present when it comes to writing that query.

I had forgotten you asked for examples. Off the top of my head, I have two YA examples, both by the same author (note that I have only read one of the two, but the other is a movie, which I have seen), & both do involve a kingdom's welfare at one point or another. Ella Enchanted has Ella going out to fix her own personal problem, then later her friends she makes on the way, plus the romantic interest, & only through that, the kingdom's safety is involved in what set out to do. The Two Princesses of Bamarre is probably less what you're looking for because it has a kingdom-wide problem--a disease--but the MC only goes to find a cure because her sister is inflicted. Those are both by Gail Carson Levine.

JBI
04-24-2007, 07:33 AM
Mine combines fantasy with a romantic tragedy. There are no real "stakes", just a story. The whole "quest to save the world" bit I feel has been overdone, and is what really makes fantasy so repetitive. Why can't authors just combine real plots with fantastical elements?

Libbie
04-24-2007, 07:47 AM
Mine combines fantasy with a romantic tragedy. There are no real "stakes", just a story. The whole "quest to save the world" bit I feel has been overdone, and is what really makes fantasy so repetitive. Why can't authors just combine real plots with fantastical elements?

Doesn't every story have stakes, though? I mean, that's what drives a story, right? A problem, and how it's solved...? I don't think that stakes need to be really huge and looming in order to qualify as stakes. It could be something as simple as finding out who stole your pen or figuring out whether a particular boy likes you. ;)

Zoombie
04-24-2007, 08:34 AM
My story's stakes almost always start small. Example: Boy has a crush on girl.

Then they usually get a bit more complicated. Example: Girl is a robot.

Then I tack on several subplots. Example: Robot is wanted by giant space lizards for the information in her brain.

Then I expand on the subplots. Example: The information turns out to be the GSL's plans to wipe out the human race.

Then I tie the subplots and starting stake together. Example: Boy and Girl stops the GSL's after a long quest. Through the quest, boy finds the courage to explain his feelings to the girl and she kisses him.

The end!

Oddsocks
04-24-2007, 10:51 AM
If you can make the small stakes feel big to the reader (as they doubtless do to the character - it may not be the end of the world, but if your life's on the line, you'll think it's fairly important), then you should be fine. So long as the reader cares about it, they'll keep reading.

Sophia
04-24-2007, 11:06 AM
I am writing a YA fantasy in which the stakes are small, by comparison. One person's life is on the line. I wonder, does this work in fantasy? Do any of you know some examples of fantasy (especially YA) with small stakes like that?


In The Limits of Enchantment by Graham Joyce, the novel is centred around the coming-of-age of the young female protagonist. It is set in the 1960s in England. The main aim for her is to find a way of keeping the cottage in which she grew up, which is being sold by the owner of the land it is on. She is very poor, and needs to raise money to buy the owner out, somehow. The protagonist is a midwife, but an 'unofficial' one, using enchantments in her work. She can't get a job without getting an official certificate, and she can't enrol for that without having state-recognised experience, and magic must be kept secret. At the same time, the woman who has raised her becomes ill, the village she lives in becomes suspicious and hostile towards her and a moment of personal magical significance is on the horizon for her, and she feels overwhelmed by it all. It's a great book, with the magical elements fitting seamlessly in with the very real setting, and the stakes, while never really going beyond her own life, feel important and gripping. I hope this helps you.

preyer
04-24-2007, 04:24 PM
well, just about every episode of 'the twilight zone' is a personal story, which is appropriate for the time allotted. for a fantasy novel, it's a lot harder to draw out a personal story over the course of a trilogy, particularly when some people's advice is 'if you can remove the fantasy from your story, do so,' i.e., if the fantasy is merely tacked on props and settings it should be taken away.

i always default to movies for examples because it's more likely something we're all more familiar with, so i give you 'practical magic.' it seems fantasy and romance are the two genres you can combine and come out with a personal story where the fate of the universe doesn't hinge on the outcome. in fact, isn't 'the illiad' rather a personal tale? 'a 1001 nights' is ostensibly a personal tale of scheherazod attempting to spare her life through storytelling, although the tales she tells are the fantasy... that's an odd-ball one depending on how you look at it, i guess.

i've also read several of those dungeons and dragons books, forgotten realms i believe they're called, where the world wasn't on the verge of disaster, although those tended to be more shorter stories woven together to form a larger tale.

of course, greek myths tend to be personal stories, too, but more morality tales. and if you think fables are fantasy, talking animals and the like, well, pick a disney movie. 'animal farm' springs to mind as a serious story, but you've got 'charlotte's web' and just too many to speak of.

dunno, does lemony snickett's count? pry not.

sci-fi-wise, choose an episode of star trek. quite a few are personal stories. i can only imagine how many star trek novels don't involve the ships destruction, tough probably most might have some kind of cheesy doomsday device in there somewhere, lol. but, you know, they only wrote about sixty-three thousand star trek novels, so odds are there has to be *some*, right? (note that they wrote a lot of star wars novels, too, but i can't think of a single one i ever read what didn't feature some galactic overtones.)

suffice it to say there are quite a few fantasy and sci-fi stories out there that aren't on a grand scale. maybe not as many, but they're out there... somewhere. not saying it's a balance of any kind, though. but, as mentioned, if you overlay a sub-genre like romance as a major element and not just as a sub-plot, that can seriously reduce your need for grand scale stories, eh? (i'd like to see some fantasy with a mystery template, something like a gandolf and sherlock holmes mixed character. that would require thought, though, and sadly most thought involved in fantasy comes through in how to put a twist on the standard kill the bad guy ending where the second act is so much fighting crazy monsters. you guys wanna change what's on the bookshelves? find ten good writers with good ideas and ten grand each to invest and start your own publishing company, then get a guy who'll run the whole thing on commission. make sure he runs it well on pain of death, though.)

Sofie
04-24-2007, 05:12 PM
For me, a story doesn't need to be about saving the world, but it does need to be about saving the MC's world. It can be about something as small as the MC going to the hairdresser's (elven hairdressers for that fantasy feel) and getting a terrible haircut - oh no, but the royal ball is tonight! Now the MC must somehow salvage her terrible haircut before her "world" of being a pretty princess is ruined.

See? The story is about a tiny, insignificant thing.. but it means the world to the MC. That's what "high stakes" mean to me, and yes, I think you do need to have them to make the story compelling.

Judg
04-24-2007, 07:05 PM
I have read groans on agent blogs about "another save-the-world" plot. For what it's worth.

JPSpideyCJ
04-24-2007, 07:18 PM
That's quite hard for me. I'm writing an end-of-the-world Lord of the Rings style thing based on a few videogames I've played, (won't say which though).

But I do like others which are this type. Sometimes, I find the save the world plot to be a bit too epic.

Judg
04-24-2007, 07:27 PM
For me, a story doesn't need to be about saving the world, but it does need to be about saving the MC's world. It can be about something as small as the MC going to the hairdresser's (elven hairdressers for that fantasy feel) and getting a terrible haircut - oh no, but the royal ball is tonight! Now the MC must somehow salvage her terrible haircut before her "world" of being a pretty princess is ruined.

See? The story is about a tiny, insignificant thing.. but it means the world to the MC. That's what "high stakes" mean to me, and yes, I think you do need to have them to make the story compelling.
I dunno. There is such a thing as too small.

Backward Masking
04-24-2007, 09:53 PM
Current book I'm reading has the characters simply trying to get out of a predicament they don't know how they got into exactly and then there's personal dilemmas to sort out as well. Nothing epic scale in this story and quite frankly, it works great.

infinitus_kaze
04-24-2007, 11:53 PM
I think it depends on the type of fantasy. Epic and Swords & Sorcery fantasy usually have high stakes, but not all fantasy does. I'm working on a story set in a fantasy world, but the entire story takes place in a magic school and the only conflict that occurs is internal conflict among the students. All that is at stake in my story are decisions like to return home or continue going to the school and to love or not to love.

The Grift
04-25-2007, 01:16 AM
And then of course there are the small stakes that turn out to have larger stakes. Save the cheerleader save the world.*


*I have never seen Heroes, but that quote sounds like the sort of thing I'm talking about. Sort of like "Oh! We have to rescue this princess? No problem. Wait, somehow I'm getting sucked into blowing up a Death Star? That's not what I signed on for."

HapiSofi
04-25-2007, 02:21 AM
If the character and the reader both care about a problem, and neither thinks it's stupid, you're okay.

Larger-scale problems are good for motivating groups of characters. Only one or two people are going to care about a bad haircut, but most people care about the imminent end of the world.

One problem with "saving the world/defeating the Dark Lord" plots is that they require the writer to know how worlds, armies, and Dark Lords operate and interconnect. This presents the writer with many, many opportunities to do something the reader will think is dumb, and consequently suffer a loss of the reader's esteem.

Another problem with STW/DDL plots is that they tend to become abstract and lose their grounding in everyday reality. This isn't good for the reader. Worse, hearing it described will cause a terrible sense of ennui to wash over the slush reader.

One way to construct a problem: Read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Pretend you're Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and you're just arriving at Little Round Top. Think about how you got there, why you got there, what you thought you were fighting for when you enlisted, what will probably happen if you don't hold your position, and what it will mean if your side loses the war.

There are all sorts of tradeoffs. You're fighting against one set of changes and for another. If your position gets rolled up, many of your guys will die, the battle may well be lost, and your side will be a lot closer to losing the overall war. People living overseas, following the progress of the war, will draw conclusions about the viability of governments founded on freedom and democracy. Closer to home, thousands and thousands of people living in slavery will have far less hope of freedom. (I picked Chamberlain because he knew about the spiritual and political issues in considerable detail. It makes the ruminations more useful.)

Here's the question: if you get overrun, will ultimate evil triumph, and good be forever lost? Not on your life. Everyone who survives will go on living in a complex world full of good and evil (both of them hard to identify at times), where they have to make compromises as often as they take moral stands. But at the same time, there will be consequences proceeding from the day's events. It all matters, and it's all concrete and particular: these men, these rocks, this much ammunition.

What makes bad STW/DDL plots so stupid is that they create worlds where moral choices are simple, Dark Lords identifiable, and winning the video game means everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, go for change, connectivity, and consequences: not what victory means, but what this fight will do, and what that will mean a week or month or ten years down the road.

Judg
04-25-2007, 03:23 AM
One problem with "saving the world/defeating the Dark Lord" plots is that they require the writer to know how worlds, armies, and Dark Lords operate and interconnect. This presents the writer with many, many opportunities to do something the reader will think is dumb, and consequently suffer a loss of the reader's esteem.Well said.

preyer
04-25-2007, 06:23 PM
what i love is how you can march a huge army across the nation in a few daze. because, you know, i think it's completely plausible to feed 100,000 soldiers merely by forraging along the way. i guess writing about a supply train sergeant doesn't make for compelling reading. even orcs have to eat, eventhough the land o' death they live in with dead people floating just under the water's surface is completely unable to sustain crops of any kind they somehow manage to grab a bite here and there. (more than anything i hate magickal elf bread that provides all nutritional requirements, thus allowing the writer not to have to have the characters hunt their own food. it's nothing more than a pure dodge, like having a magick light orb or something so they don't have to make torches, either. oh, and, hi ho, shadowfax, away!)

and orcs are evil. no need to ever write about an orc who doesn't hate humans and elves and dwarves for no good reason.

anyway, true, if the scale is just too trivial i'm not interested, either. just because it means something to the character doesn't mean it's something interesting to me. i certainly wouldn't want to read a story based on the princess breaking a nail, it's just too unimportant even if it's her favourite nail. if that nail breakage prompts a war, that can be, ah, cute, otherwise i'd quickly be asking what the point is. some absolutely trivial things i could care less about are:

broken nails

stubbed toes

wedding invitations with a typo (unless it's a very humiliating typo or the address is wrong)

carriage wheels with a broken spoke

split ends

that wet dog smell

wilted flowers

bad haircuts

the fact it's the last tic tac/slice of anchovie pizza left. not the huge moral decision it seems, folks (unless it's the last piece of magickal elf bread and who eats it lives, who doesn't dies)

wrinkled robes

too much chest hair... unless it's on a woman, then, aye, this could be an issue

broken lute strings. i'm sure the king isn't going to execute you. then again, i would... don't come to *my* court unless you're ready to rock

forgetful wizards... okay, so this doesn't belong here, i just hate this idea with a passion, it's just stupid. okay, if he's got alzheimer's, i can get behind that, but it's never done in a way that's not supposed to be cute and for comic relief

country music. did you know shania twain was from canada? wtf? i mean, shouldn't she end every line with 'eh'? what the hell do canadians know about country music? what, you'd get behind a guy with an english accent singing country? i don't think so. or how about an asian guy? yeah, right, like that'd ever happen. william hung sings 'country boys can survive,' or whatever that bocephus song is called. country music lovers are so prejudice and don't even know it. i'd invite them all to my court just to put their heads on pikes. now, that's entertainment. imagine being a country music singer with a broken lute string who knows he's going to get killt when he gets there but yet still has to show up, and on time despite a broken carriage wheel. you'd show up for your execution looking a fright, frizzy hair and everything. then you have to face a panel of three judges just to literally survive the auditions. good thing the medieval version of paula abdul is all whacked out on lotus root.

preyer
04-25-2007, 06:26 PM
now that i think about it, i think i just laid the foundation of a story there.... not a good story, but....

TrickyFiction
04-26-2007, 03:35 AM
now that i think about it, i think i just laid the foundation of a story there.... not a good story, but....

I dare you to write it. :D

thethinker42
05-01-2007, 03:10 AM
If you can make the small stakes feel big to the reader (as they doubtless do to the character - it may not be the end of the world, but if your life's on the line, you'll think it's fairly important), then you should be fine. So long as the reader cares about it, they'll keep reading.

That sums it up perfectly.

My rule of thumb is that as long as the stakes are absolutely earth-shattering for the main character(s) AND interesting to the reader (ie., the stakes are something more than getting a turnip cart across a bridge and the character is someone the reader gives a damn about) then they're high enough for the story.

thethinker42
05-01-2007, 03:11 AM
wedding invitations with a typo (unless it's a very humiliating typo or the address is wrong)

carriage wheels with a broken spoke

split ends

that wet dog smell

*hangs head in shame...plods off to delete WIP...*

abemorgantis
05-01-2007, 03:37 AM
The Ethshar books by Lawrence Watt-Evans are all really small stakes stuff, fix a spell gone wrong, talk a dragon into doing something and so on. Excellent stuff.

www.watt-evans.com

dclary
05-01-2007, 04:04 AM
In one of my WIPs, the character's main goal is to retrieve a fishing pole that was stolen from him. He just happens to save the world in the process, but that's quite by accident.

Zoombie
05-01-2007, 04:27 AM
Always fun to mix things up. One of my stories begins when the MC mistakenly steps between dimensions while trying to go to the bathroom and lands himself in a genocidal war between two factions that have resorted to chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.

Evaine
05-03-2007, 12:16 AM
There's a scene early on in Tess of the d'Urbervilles where the characters are coming home from market late at night and their horse is killed in a cart accident. It's very small scale in the "saving the world" stakes, but of enormous importance to them because there's no way they can afford to buy another horse.