Let’s talk stakes.
I watched the newest Die Hard* the other day, and, aside from the physics conundrums which are an inevitable part of any action movie**, I had a little trouble with the stakes. The US government wanted to stop Bad Russian Guy from getting more power*** because…
…Well, because he’s a Bad Guy, god damn it. That’s all we need to know. Undefinable Bad Things will happen if he’s allowed to continue being The Bad Guy. Chaos, riots, puppies being kicked in the streets…it’s going to be bad. We think.****
But it’s a little fuzzy. The stakes remain unclear. And if they’re unclear, then why should we care if they’re lost?
Something has to be at risk. It can be big—the fates of nations and worlds is a popular stake in epic fantasy and space opera—or small—romance as a whole is predicated on the risk to a single person’s emotional health—but it has to be there. Ideally, we can have big and small things at stake, but we’ll settle for one if it’s one we really care about. And we have to know what the hell it is.
This was one of the problems with my first horror novel. There was a Thing that was trying to get out of somewhere, and it was generally accepted that it would be bad if it did. But nowhere did I ever say why it would be bad. It was just a given. And, because of that, the motivations of all the characters became suspect. Because why in the name of Christ’s holy cock and balls would they risk life and limb and sanity to stop something that wasn’t a clear threat? I wouldn’t.
There have to be stakes, and they have to be real enough to the characters that they are willing to do whatever they have to. Epic fantasy heroes have to be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect their queen. Romance protagonists must be willing to do embarrassing or downright insane things to keep from losing their One True Love. Aliens have to be willing to lay their eggs inside the disgusting carcass of a hairless ape to ensure their offspring have the best chance of survival.
And they have to be willing to do those things because the alternative is unspeakable.
*Which I can’t be arsed to remember the name of, so I’ve taken to referring to it as Die Hard X: The Die-Hardening.
**And which should never get in the way of enjoying a properly done fight scene or explosion.
***Another problem, because it’s made clear from the outset that he’s got a lot of power already. Enough to imprison Other Russian Guy for a helluva long time. Maybe they missed the mark earlier.
****All right, I’ll admit that the Die Hard series in general is low-hanging fruit, but since I’ve barely left the house for the last week, I haven’t had much opportunity to do other research.