Stakes are important to storytelling. They tie the emotional throughline together with the plot. The stakes, generally, are what the protagonist wants and the plot is the journey they take to getting whatever that is. Sometimes the stakes are as simple as a character that wants to find their bicycle, other times the stakes are as grand as wanting to save the world from destruction by a giant sky beam. In short, stakes often generate the conflict of the story, which in turn equates to dramatic heft.
It’s easy to undercut the stakes of a story with ill-advised decisions, or poorly timed humor. Let’s explore a couple of ways in which movies have undercut their own dramatic heft, intentionally or not.
Humor Undercuts Drama
Once again, I’m going to say something controversial, yet brave: THOR: RAGNAROK could have been better.
It wouldn’t have even been hard! THOR: RAGNAROK suffers from a common issue in a lot of stories, but especially Marvel movies. Whenever something dramatic happens, like when the entirety of Asgard is wiped out, the dramatic tension and sense of stakes are run over by jokes.
By the end of the movie, Thor has lost his three closest friends (the Warriors Three), his father, learned of a long-lost sister that he must find a way to kill, been imprisoned as a gladiator, and decided to destroy his home planet in order to save his people. And yet, the movie never stops cracking jokes to allow us to feel any of this drama. In this Screen Rant article written last year on this very topic, Odin’s death was even reshot so as not to make the audience feel too badly.
It’s one thing to want to have fun at the movies–that’s important–but storytelling is inherently an emotional connection between creator and audience, or story and audience. If you don’t allow the audience to feel what the characters feel, even if that’s sadness or anger, then you’re not allowing them to fully connect and empathize with the story. Aside from that, for me, it takes me out of the story. If the characters don’t care enough to feel upset at what’s happening, then why should I?
Lack of Consequences
In order for an audience to fully connect with a story, the consequences of the stakes must be clear and, this is the important part, followed through on. If the stakes are that a character might die, and then the character dies, it undercuts the stakes for them to later return. Looking at you every Marvel movie ever.
This can go for lower stakes, too. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK undermines its stakes when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant only for it to kill all of them. What was the point of the journey that Indiana Jones and Marion went on to stop them? They ended up being completely inconsequential to the climax.
If a story sets up the consequences for a particular set of stakes, it needs to follow through on them unless there is a twist that leads to a new understanding of the stakes, or introduces even higher stakes. FRINGE does this well in its second season when you finally come to learn the consequences of Walter’s actions around Peter and the alternate universe. We think the stakes are that if Walter doesn’t open the door to the other universe then Peter will die. In reality, opening that door actually leads to much bigger stakes when he essentially kidnaps Peter and then the universes start to collide.
Stakes are the spokes around which stories are propelled. Without them, stories can ground to a halt, losing the audience. Maintain their inherent drama and follow-through on their promise, otherwise risk alienating your audience and breaking their trust.