Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Games Discussed: Trover Saves the Universe (Squanch Games), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)
Over the years, certain key phrases have become axiomatic to writers across mediums. Pearls of wisdom like ‘write what you know’ and ‘show, don’t tell’ are issued so frequently that writers develop a tendency to repeat them without internalizing their merits. With those phrases sits an oft-repeated piece of advice for writers who find they’ve written a dull, uninspired story: to make it exciting, they must ‘raise the stakes’. Although this advice is simple on its face, the concept of ‘stakes’ is deceptively complex, and knowing when and how to raise them is a skill unto itself. The best stories are the ones that not only define their stakes from the outset, but continually raise them at both the right time and place.
To properly ‘raise the stakes’ in a narrative, one must first define what the stakes are. In general terms, stakes are either things a character stands to lose if they fail to achieve their goal, or things they stand to gain if they succeed. Stakes can be either external or internal, mirroring a character’s wants and needs, respectively. External stakes are typically people, places, or things, whereas internal stakes are values, beliefs, or ideas. The strongest stories are those that put both external and internal stakes at risk for the same goal. One example of a game with strong stakes is Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. In Breath of the Wild, Princess Zelda’s personal journey has both external and internal stakes. At the beginning of her story, Zelda has been trying to unlock her holy powers through prayer, but finds herself without success. If she fails, she will not be able to fight back the evil force known as Calamity Ganon, which threatens all life in the kingdom of Hyrule. She will also be the first princess in Hylian history without command over her holy power, which will make her a disappointment in both the eyes of her father and her people. The lives at risk are the external stakes; her value to others is the internal stake. Conversely, if she succeeds, everyone in Hyrule will be safe from the calamity. Although there is only one goal, the audience has several powerful reasons to want Zelda to achieve it.
Raising the Stakes
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)
With the stakes established, the next step is raising them throughout the narrative. To increase tension effectively throughout a story, literary agent and author Donald Maass asks writers to consider these questions: “How could things get worse?” and “When would be the worst moment for them to get worse?”¹ Making things worse may seem impossible in stories where the external stakes are sky-high from the start, however, which is why Maass divides stakes into two other categories: public and personal. Public stakes impact everyone, whereas personal stakes are specific to the protagonist. Breath of the Wild uses the public and personal divide to great effect. When the story begins, Calamity Ganon is already an established threat to all of humanity, which means the public stakes cannot possibly go higher. The time table for Ganon’s return is nebulous, however, so there’s room to raise the personal stakes. In Zelda’s case, she has both family and friends that she cares about, and her progressive failures to harness her sacred power put their lives at risk. When Ganon finally returns, they are the ones who fall before the rest of humanity, making the story deeply personal. The story’s climax occurs when Zelda has one person left—Link—and the stakes are raised one last time when one of Ganon’s minions threatens his life. It is only at that moment, with nothing else to lose, that Zelda is able to harness her power and fight back against the darkness.
When properly established, a story’s stakes strengthen not only the plot, but the characters as well. These singular ideas can then come together to support the theme, which is the central question that the work asks of its audience. Just as Princess Zelda must find the sacred power to protect her loved ones in an increasingly dangerous world, she must also realize that they are the very things that motivate her. By repeatedly raising the stakes, putting Zelda’s loved ones at risk, Zelda is able to find the answer to the question: “Why do I seek this power?” If the people she cared about most were never at risk, she would have never found the answer. Raising the stakes was the only way to bring her arc, and the story, to its natural conclusion.
¹ Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (p. 78). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.