Once you achieve a base level of media analysis in your mid to late childhood through budding critical thinking skills the fundamental building blocks of stories becomes evident. A five-year-old may think of Spiderman just as a cool hero and Doctor Octopus as the mean bad guy, root for and boo the corresponding characters, but the older brother next to him, say eight, will understand that Peter’s loved ones were injured by Doc Ock and he has good reason to fight back. Both kids cheer the same but for the older boy there’s the slim emergence of how good stories work, how they get you invested. Then when Doc Ock says his neutron pulse atomizer with destroy the world the older boy knows intuitively who’ll win the big fight. Perhaps he’ll tease his younger brother with that seeming prescience.
Seeing as many kids’ stories set the stakes so high as the fate of the world one of the earliest shorthands we internalize is if said stakes are unreasonable then the conclusion is forgone. We have one Earth; it can’t blow up, especially every week. The fault could even exist outside the story with a defining character trait or a long running character at risk. No one thinks this time Batman’s going to kill the Joker because Batman doesn’t kill and the Joker is money. (It doesn’t help comics that near everything gets retconned eventually.)
Low stakes are conversely tenser because failure is an option. In fact, there are near infinite options. The homicide detective doesn’t have to stop the serial killer before he kills again because it’s been established there are already multiple victims. Besides the personal, terrible loss of a human being’s life, there nothing unexpected with a sixth or eleventh body floating down the stream. If the story’s structured well enough the killer might not be caught by the end of the book. A rule of thumb for problem scaling is if the protagonist fails, could they seek redemption? Killer eludes investigator at the end of book one, investigator must prove to themselves and the town they’re capable of holding their job through book two. If they fail again they could be fired but that’s not a binary end either for they could continue investigating outside the law in fierce, self-destructive determination.
There can, and probably should, be something more important than the highlighted issue at the story’s climax. Emotions and a character’s happiness have stronger impacts on the audience, more so compared to doing the thing that stops the other guy. Rocky loses to Apollo Creed. Does he care? Do we care? He gets Adrian back at his side; he becomes respectable. What the loss shows (abstracted from the rest of Rocky which further confirms this) is Rocky’s human and therefore fallible. In every future outing there’s precedent for him losing what the plot says he should win. Forgetting the rest of the franchise, it’s reasonable he loses to Creed in the rematch giving the fight added suspense.
If a squad of super elite commandos has a mission which requires a zero margin of error, they can’t fail. Now there can’t be a single error for otherwise the story lied or the quest-giver will get buried. As entertainment, now the mission must go off without a hitch because that’s what’s expected like watching a short, straight row of dominos gradually topple over.
If that commando mission is so important as to prevent all out nuclear war then where’s the time to do anything else? Should they be spending their flight from basecamp to the operational area acting as themselves so the audience can grasp who they are, their personalities, dreams, and interpersonal relationships, or should they spend that time further preparing for their mission? Don’t have a distracting conversation about your favorite bands while you could focus one hundred and ten percent on quadruple checking your weapons, that’d be wasteful.
If the scale of the problem is total then so must the tone be.
Reign it in. Make it blue collar, workmanlike. A squad on a routine patrol where there’s no such thing as a routine patrol has downtime, blind corners, persistent threats, surprises, suspense, action, dread. Eight men are tasked with investigating an old church suspected to conceal enemy provisions in recently captured territory — anything could happen. One soldier opens a door and a grenade in a glass jar crashes to the floor. The squad finds a war-ravaged feral child hiding in the attic. There’re long wooden crates holding chemical weapons. A scene of sporadic suicides forces the soldiers to imagine the lives of the deceased and what led them to seek that morose end. It’s all there if you can find it.
Such a low stakes situation is easier for the audience to imagine themselves in that role. If an entire nation were conscripted most people would guess that’d be their lot. I’m reminded of Missile Command and the smaller conceit that in a nuclear war you might find yourself commanding an ICBM intercept facility for a moderate sized city. It’s not the fate of the world but that’s a lot to carry on your shoulders.
Whereas that’s believable, standing astride history like a colossus is what you want. Perhaps when unshackled from an unsavory reality, having the world at your fingertips is a desirable fantasy. If you want escapism there’s your ticket.
High stakes, paradoxically, is useful in both the simplest and grandest stories told. A children’s story needs to be digestible and the dark lord painting the world in eternal darkness is instantly understood as a bad thing. The world feels gigantic, the youthful imagination runneth over with dopamine, and the child escapes into the book.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have The Lord of the Rings. Again the dark lord wants to paint the world in eternal darkness but it’s as epic an epic as you’ll get. What helps mitigate the tonal solidification are long periods of travel to flesh out the characters and the journey to the final destination is broken up by smaller obstacles which each have a place in the narrative.
Similarly on the grand end of the scale is war. Not commando missions or single squad patrols but the top-down events which crave lines on maps and build or tear down nations. The war’s outcomes can be total, in abstraction and as discussed between generals, kings, and diplomats, but that can be supplemented with the tangible outcomes for the everyday people fighting that war and those caught between the armies. An empire may fall and leave unimaginable struggle and suffering for the vanquished, talk up the tragedy as much as you wish, but give a window into what that means for a regular person whom we’ve come to care about.
As I add on in years my preference slides onto the lower end of the threat level. Maybe I’ve just seen too many “The end of life as we know it” stories to care anymore, maybe I’m cynical towards that side of the entertainment business. I know that creeps in from time to time when I let it ruin an otherwise fine story. Yet when a new father has to decide between a teetering nine to five or heisting freight trucks to feed his family I’m hooked. My life may always be six steps away from disaster and seeing something happen to a fictional character that I’ve seen happen to real people in the news and whom I’ve known makes it hit hard. It also gives a practical takeaway when the protagonist (acting through the writer’s personal experience) finds a solution I was blind to when I faced a similar problem.
That’s the heart for me: Yo I knew a guy who was exactly like this asshole who stole my lunch out of the breakroom fridge all the time! I wish I would’ve spiked my sandwich with reaper sauce too!