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A Case for Smaller Stakes

By Jonathan Walker

Climate change, threat of war, political strife, pandemic-level disease... we live in a world of massive stakes, potentially world-ending. Millions upon millions of lives are endangered every single day. Many people use reading as an escape, a moment of respite from these issues that weigh us down. What is often found, especially in speculative fiction stories, are stakes just as high for the sake of skyrocketing tension. Dark lords threaten to destroy fantasy worlds; the Death Star annihilates entire civilizations at the click of a button; enormous starships battle for galactic supremacy.

As a speculative fiction writer myself, I will be the first to admit that we often get so bogged down in these massive details and sweeping conflicts that we sacrifice the most important parts: characters, dialogue, pure emotion, etc. The best of us use these more intimate parts of stories to make them more than the sum of their parts. What is The Lord of the Rings without the deep companionship between Frodo and Sam? Without a cast of lovable characters that populate the grounds of Hogwarts, why should we care if this school is threatened by Voldemort? Many of us, however, only take our characters far enough to make them pawns in your overarching plot, an impartial means to an end. Massive, world-ending conflicts take center stage, and we sacrifice what should be the most important parts of our stories, the parts that help the reader see themselves, make friends with the characters, and feel something.

Now, I don't mean to tell you your stories can't include these enormous stakes--there's certainly a place for grandeur and a sense of wonder. But if these are the only stakes in which your story plays, you're going to find it a lot harder to make a reader care.

If they don't care, what is there to keep them reading?

I recently had the pleasure of reading Becky Chambers's A Psalm for the Wild Built, the first novella in her Monk and Robot series. In this science fiction book, Chambers sets her story in a world that has reckoned with many a systemic issue, from climate devastation to the artificial intelligence singularity. The focus of the novella, however, is simply on a monk named Dex, who leaves their monastery to travel from village to village in a tea cart. Chambers illustrates their discontentment with living in the city, the monotony of normal life, and sends them on an intimate journey into the wilderness. With the help of a robot named Mosscap, Dex explores what they and the human race need on an individual level, finding peace in nature, rest and reconciliation with their role in the world. The stakes in this story are as small as can be, and yet this is one of the most effective speculative fiction stories I've read in years.

I would invite you, dear reader, to consider the stakes in your writing, regardless of genre. If you are writing nonfiction, do you focus too much on the broad strokes of your subject's life--whether the subject is you or another--instead of intimate details that invite the reader further into the narrative? As poets, do we find ourselves writing about big ideas and abstractions instead of the details that connect the reader to the speaker?

Do your audience a favor: let them in. Not only to watch, but to experience.

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