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Is it uncompelling to continue the story with lower stakes?

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A big piece of criticism I've seen directed at the last season of Game of Thrones was the fact that

they killed the Night King before the finale, and the last episodes had Cersei, a mere mortal, as the enemy. Considering the Night King wanted to instate an eternal night, and Cersei just wanted to continue her tyranny,

it is safe to say the former villain brought a lot more stakes to the table.

Personally, I didn't have much of a problem with exactly the downscaling of stakes. I don't care that much about stakes.

With Cersei, there was A LOT more emotional investment than with the one-dimensional Night King, so I found it to still be compelling when she came around to be the center antagonist.

Though the fact remains, many did not like the progression. And I have heard that the standard progression is always higher stakes in sequels to come. First the hero might be saving the streets, then the country, then the world, then the universe, etc. So, if I create my story in a way that the stakes are lower with the last villain, will that make it less compelling?

Also, what are the implications of this with spin-offs?

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In Game of Thrones there were two sets of stakes: the magical Night King, and the mundane power struggle for the Iron Throne. The characters reasonably decided they had to deal with the magical, more immediately existential threat before handling the mundane one.

Honestly I agree with you, and I also think that visual stories in general are escalating the stakes too high too fast. TV and movies are becoming too invested in the idea of "kill 'em or go home." Everything has to end in a death or it's not sufficiently interesting. I think there is a lot of value in smaller stakes: something emotionally important but not life-threatening.

The best way to handle this, I think, is to focus on how important the last-act stakes are to the characters. That will help the last-act stakes be more important to the readers.

If your protagonist is desperate to get the MacGuffin to the Place for Plot Reasons, then getting out of the burning building is just one more (albeit hair-raising) obstacle to overcome. If we've invested enough in her journey to get to the place, then the simpler tasks of navigating the streets after escaping the building will be just as compelling as "getting out of a building which is on fire." It depends on how much urgency you as the writer give it.

A sequel is a new story. The stakes are whatever you make them. As an audience member, I frankly often enjoy a breather in story rhythm. I don't want every single story to risk the end of the world. I've walked away from TV shows because they can't stop escalating the stakes, and I'm tired of watching characters I love repeatedly tortured with no end or reward ever in sight.

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My issue is that you seem to be suggesting that "everyone dies" is worse than "you only get to live if you agree with me", that doesn't necessarily follow, "better to die free than live as a slave" and all that. For this reason world conquering evil is potentially worse than world destroying evil, the stakes aren't automatically higher or lower but they are different.

But that doesn't actually answer your core question just the example you've given. There is a particular thing that people tend to forget about when writing "high stakes" adventure stories, the stakes for the individual protagonist(s) are almost always the same regardless of their goals or the pressures on them due to possible outcomes. That is to say that they can die, whether they fail or succeed in the process they aren't going to care what happens as a result. When more than their own life is on the line the personal stakes are higher even if the world doesn't hang in the balance. In this way the stakes can be shown to be the same for those involved or raised for them while being lowered for the world at large. As long as the characters and their personal motivations are compelling what hangs in the balance is window dressing.

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The most important rule is to match the stakes with the promises you've made to the reader

You most emphatically do not have to constantly raise the stakes to make a compelling story. As your instincts suggest, switching to more personal stakes can create the same amount of reader investment as higher stakes would have.

For example, Star Wars opened with the fate of the entire rebellion in the balance. But in The Empire Strikes Back, the stakes are narrowed to only focus on the fate of the handful of main characters. But it was no less engaging because of these narrow stakes, because of the emotional connection to these characters.

In fact, I would argue that constantly increasing the stakes is a trap that should be avoided - when the world is always doomed, the stakes stop having the impact that they should, and every new over-the-top threat starts to feel ridiculous rather than dramatic. (You can see this somewhat in the Star Wars Legends, which is filled with dozens of superweapons

The important thing is to make sure that the readers are properly invested in the stakes that you want them to focus on. If your readers feel that they have been promised an epic confrontation between humanity and the forces of evil, then sidelining that epic confrontation to focus on an inter-human conflict will be disappointing. On the other hand, if the readers are expecting a highly emotional, deeply personal struggle for the throne, then sidelining that conflict by threatening the extermination of humanity will be just as upsetting.

If Game of Thrones fans are upset about the final season, then that indicates a failure on the part of the show writers to properly direct their viewer's interest to the conflict that the show writers wished to focus on. (There will always be some readers/viewers who fixate on the 'wrong' conflict, that's to be expected, and is nobody's fault. But if the majority of viewers are reacting poorly in the same way, that's a failure on the part of the show creators.) It says nothing about the intrinsic value of each of the two conflicts.

Television doesn't do denouement conflicts very well

The 'Season Finale' is an important part of the television structure. There is an expectation that the final episode of a season will be the culmination of the themes and conflicts that the season has been setting up.

In the Lord of the Rings novels, after Sauron has been defeated and the king is crowned, the Hobbits return home and have to deal with the Scouring the of the Shire. This works excellently in the book because the book is structured as a journey, which ends with a return to home which contrasts who the journeying characters were at the beginning of the journey with who they are now. The movies, on the other hand, cut out the Scouring of the Shire, because The Return of the King is told as a war story. It ends with the victory over the enemy, and doesn't have space for an extended denouement about the return journey.

Were The Lord of the Rings a TV show, it would likely have also cut the Scouring the Shire, because as much as the Scouring of the Shire is an important part of the book, it isn't the main conflict, and the Season Finale needs to conclude the primary conflict of the season. And after that conflict is resolved, there's not enough room in the episode for another, lesser conflict.

EDIT: Further thoughts comparing Game of Thrones to Lord of the Rings

Pace noted in the comments that GRRM has said that he was aiming for a similar tone in his ending to The Lord of the Rings. If the TV show ending is truly seeking after Tolkien's ending, I think that it missed the mark. Even though superficially they both seem to have a major climax followed by a lesser conflict, they are actually more different than they are similar.

The Lord of the Rings is structurally symmetric. It opens with Bilbo realizing that he no longer belongs in the Shire and leaving. Then Frodo and his friends flee the Shire to escape danger they do not understand. They meet Aragorn and learn of his status as King in Exile, and then finally at the Council of Elrond determine that they must destroy the Ring.

At the end of the novel, the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn is crowned King, the Hobbits return home (handily dispatching danger that they are now thoroughly in command of), and finally Frodo comes to understand that he no longer belongs in the Shire, and departs.

The Game of Thrones does not have this same symmetry. It opens with an attack by a White Walker, followed by a demonstration of Ned's honor, and then the Starks enter the Game of Thrones.

At the end of the series,

The White Walkers are defeated, Jon demonstrates his honor (by choosing duty over love), and finally the Game of Thrones is decided (when Bran is crowned king).

Rather than the first in, last out structure of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones is thematically first in, first out. I personally believe that the failure to mirror the introduction of the themes and conflicts is part of what's causing dissonance among the fans of the show.

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As Pat Rothfuss said on Writing Excuses, there are things that can happen to characters that are "worse than death". The "existential threats", especially because they are such a cliché, are also just one "type" of threat. A character losing a loved one, or their honour or dignity, or their sanity--these are not lesser stakes to character death.

So, a really interesting way to think about this is not about raising or lowering the stakes, it is about shifting them. The "middle" of the story might have a lot of adventure or combat, and the stakes are about survival, but the ending shifts the emphasis so the stakes are more meaningful: will justice be done? will the hero come to understand herself? will the romance last forever?

GoT, that you use in your example, I think illustrates this explanation well. I never felt the Night King was a one-dimensional character, because I didn't really experience the Night King as a character at all: that part of the story was more of a "man-vs-nature" struggle to my reading of it. The existential threat made the relationships between the characters all the more poignant--as they're failing to demonstrate the most basic human decency, they not only harm eachother here and now, but also risk the fate of the world. But the real drama was always between the characters, and the Night King was the backdrop. So, it was not a question of lower stakes once the Night King was out of the way: it was all about resolving the human relationships. We save the world from total destruction, but then we get one more act in which to see what this world will be like--will the nastiest humans rule it? And, in this context, what happened with Daenerys also makes sense to me: the "stakes" are about whether the worst characters get all the power in the end, and, oh, look, the story convinced us to root for Daenerys, but, actually, she could end up being the worst ruler of all (at least, in the unhinged state she reached by the end--even if her descent into that state was not handled as well as we might wish).

Finally, talking about series of stories, again I think this way to look at stakes offers interesting potential. If you're doing adventure, action, etc, there will always be physical danger, so every episode is likely to have stakes involving survival. But in one episode, it may be the romance that is at stake as far as character development is concerned, whereas in another it could be justice, and in a third it could be the character knowing herself.

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Television series don't work like novels.

In a popular fiction novel, the tension continually rises towards the crisis where it gets resolved and released towards the end. This traditional story arc* is possible only because the story ends. It is a finite structure. (image source)

In a tv show, especially one that spans several seasons, we don't have a monolithic narrative, but many narrative instances (the episodes) grouped together (into seasons), and both the single episodes and the seasons and (ideally) the whole series have their own narrative arcs. Consequently, there will be many parallel storylines, each with its own phases of rising action, climaxes, and resolutions, that don't all achieve the same intensity, not in parallel, and not necessarily in increasing order.

A tv show, more than a novel, is like a narration of life, and like life, the narration often lacks a coherent structure. Not because the tv show writers don't try, but because the narration itself is potentially infinite and structured into a multitude of narrative acts.


Actually, the situation in books is a bit more complex than traditional narrative theory suggests. Linguistic analyses have found several different types of story arc in fiction. Here is an example (source):

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Is it uncompelling to continue the story with lower stakes?

It depends on the type of story you are telling.

If you are telling a character-driven story, one in which the reader becomes heavily invested in the MC (for convenience, that can stand for "Main Character" or "Main Crew"), their emotional journey in life, then an event which lowers the stakes can be great.

But that seldom completes the emotional journey of the MC. the story isn't done until the reader is satisfied the MC is firmly back in their New Normal.

The Story begins in the MC's Normal World, that gets disrupted, and in dealing with the disruption the MC either returns to their Normal World or finds a New Normal.

But for character stories, the disruption can create emotional consequences or re-open old wounds that aren't healed by the fact of the climax, and the audience wants to see those issues put to rest, for better or worse.

Most thrillers are not character stories, the MC doesn't have emotional issues, or they are superficial and lame, not life changing.

So, depending on how much your readers care about your MC as a person and their emotional life, you may well continue with lower stakes, because they want to see the MC find closure, and be satisfied all the evil got defeated.

But if you mostly talk about what the MC does and not very much about what they think and feel, then you should probably leave the biggest bad for the last, and use the smaller bads as a way to get to him, trap him, deceive him, etc.

This is also the way of escaping the Escalation Trap, of requiring ever larger stakes. If you look at most Detective Series, you will notice we become very invested in the detective: They are character stories, we want to see our guy solve the mystery, and it doesn't have to be a bigger mystery every time. Columbo runs the same stakes basically every time, one victim, one murderer, for whatever reason.

Sometimes they escalate; Sherlock Holmes escalated with Moriarty. But as the dozens of Sherlock-like hyper-observant detective series prove, we are perfectly happy with hyper-observant detectives continually running the same "small" stakes again and again, they can keep going to the well of one victim, one killer, and we're perfectly happy. Until the character stops being interesting.

The same thing goes for adventures, if we like the characters we don't mind if the stakes stay basically the same. That is how series like MASH and The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) run for many seasons, and only "escalate" by introducing character disruptions when they start running out of existing character gas.

So TBBT let Koothrapalli find his voice with women; Penny and Leonard get together and break up but finally marry; Walowitz finds and marries Bernadette; Sheldon finds and marries Amy; all to explore new fun and interesting dimensions of these characters because the show was in danger of getting stale with the original crew of nerds. But outside their developing relationships, the stakes are always small potatoes (until the final season).

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