3 Ways to Test Your Story’s Emotional Stakes
Part 14 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel
You can do almost everything right in a story, and it will not matter. Acing your story structure, constructing a solid thematic premise, and punching your card on every important character-arc beat will not matter—if you don’t also nail the emotional stakes.
The craft of storytelling is largely logical. We study story theory to discover the patterns that emerge from story to story, and then apply these universal facets of structure to our own stories.
But as important as logic is to good writing, it can never bear the burden of good storytelling all by itself. Emotion is every bit as important (arguably more so) in getting readers to actually care about and invest in the logically compelling story world you’ve created.
That’s where emotional stakes come in. It’s the glue that holds together your plot, character, and theme. It’s what takes your story from solid but empty framework to the realm of something readers will enjoy, remember, and perhaps even be impacted by.
Fail in your emotional stakes, and your entire story—however great its structure or character arc—simply will not matter. Unfortunately, that’s the category in which we find the highly-anticipated entry of Doctor Strange into the Marvel cinematic universe.
In Which Dr. Strange Learns Many (Many, Many) Things, Fights Bad Guys Just Because, and Tries to Serve Tea
Welcome to the (long-overdue) fourteenth installment in our serial exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel movies. I missed Doctor Strange in the theater last November, which meant, no doubt, I missed out on a little bit of the dazzle from its gorgeous special effects. At the end of its two hours, however, I wasn’t too bummed to have saved an extra $10 bucks on ticket fare.
But first the good things:
- I found Doctor Strange a very solid story. It’s structure is nicely in place, and it offers a lovely and sound character arc, as supremely (see what I did there?) arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange gets hit in the head (err, hands) by life and is forced to rethink his assumptions about himself and the universe.
- The whole kaleidoscopic special-effect approach is lovely.
- The ladies, in my opinion, stole the show, with Tilda Swinton using her eerie charm to excellent effect and Rachel McAdams breathing much-needed warmth and life into her every scene.
- The antagonist Kaecilius—however abbreviated his screentime—at least got the opportunity to offer some legitimate-sounding reasons for his evil plan to give everyone “immortality.”
- Thor’s tea. 😀
And now the not-so-good things:
- So, so much information dumping. One of the challenges of any origins story is setting up the world and, in this instance, its magic system for viewers. The best stories make the training sessions a legitimately interesting part of the conflict. And, also, preferably leave viewers with a clear and sensible understanding of how the “rules” work in this world and why they matter. Here, not so much.
- Gotta love Benedict Cumberbatch (even though it’s very “strange” hearing him with an American accent), but more than anything this latest iteration of a Marvel “jerk” made me appreciate Robert Downey, Jr.’s insane charm, which gave us a much more endearing rich/arrogant/talented hero than we get from Stephen Strange—who pretty much just is a jerk in the beginning.
- As is also often a pitfall of origins stories, the overarching conflict with the main antagonist Kaecilius feels tacked on. Stephen has no personal investment in fighting Kaecilius. At one point, he basically stops and says, “Why am I fighting this guy? I don’t even know who he is?” To which everybody indignantly responds, “Dude, because he’s EVIL!”
- Still, all of those are pretty minor complaints. So it took me a while to puzzle out why this movie just didn’t work for me. Why it never sucked me in. Why, to be honest, it kind of bored me. And then—light bulb! This story has no prominent relationship character and, as a result, noemotional stakes.
Pass or Fail: How’s Your Story Do on These 3 Important Tests for Emotional Stakes?
First things first: what are emotional stakes?
Simply put, emotional stakes get your readers to care about your story. Emotional stakes get readers emotionally involved. When you succeed in building strong emotional stakes, readers essentially merge with your story. You’ve pulled them in so deeply their critical, logical brain tones down a little. Maybe they even completely block out the physical world around them.
For writers, this is the ultimate goal—this is to us what those pesky Infinity Stones are to Thanos. When your story engages readers on an emotional level, you’ve got ’em. Cha-ching!
Fail, however, in the emotional-stakes department, and two things happen:
1. At best, readers will simply skim the story’s surface, never really engaging with it, and ultimately setting it aside and forgetting about it (as we talked about in this recent post on the do’s and don’ts of writing memorable fiction).
2. At worst, the lack of emotional engagement will send readers into logical overdrive—and that means, they’re going to be far too aware of your story at every step. They’re standing outside the story, failing to fully suspend disbelief and therefore viewing it critically (sometimes very, very critically).
Okay, so these emotional stakes don’t sound so hard. Just write a reasonably likable character, throw him into a hairy situation, and—poof!—readers will care about him, become so emotionally involved they forget to eat or drink for the next twelve hours, and then awake from their trance thinking that was the best book evah.
Erm, I wish.
All of that is a good starting place, but as Doctor Strange shows us, getting all the foundational pieces of a story right isn’t enough to punch readers’ emotional buttons. Fortunately, just because we’re talking “emotion” doesn’t mean we can’t apply ourselves logically to figure out what pieces must be in play to hit just the right switches.
As a matter of fact, there are three particular tests you can run to determine if your story will succeed or fail in engaging readers emotionally.
Emotional Stakes Test #1: Does Your Story Feature Important Relationship Characters?
This is where emotional stakes start. We understand people through their interactions with other people. Characters show us who they really are—both contextually and subtextually—in their relationships with other characters. Even a story such as Cast Away, about a man marooned on island, becomes emotional through the already-established relationships he’s trying to get back to (and the relationships he projects on inanimate objects such as, say, a soccer ball).
The most interesting part of any story is always the interplay between two people—whether they’re talking to each other, looking at each other, getting physical in some way, or studiously avoiding any of the above.
You don’t, however, get emotional stakes simply by putting two characters in a room together. You also don’t get a relationship character simply by having two characters slap backs and call each other “buddy.”
A relationship character is a very specific entity within a storyform. This is a prominent relationship that:
1. Strategically impacts the protagonist’s personal journey by pushing him toward either the Truth or Lie.
2. Evolves in direct proportion (as both an effect and a visual representation) of the protagonist’s inner transformation.
The relationship character can be one (or more) of any prominent archetypal characters, including antagonist, mentor, sidekick, and love interest (see this post for a full list of archetypal characters who affect theme). What’s most important about this character(s) is that she is not just a fluffy add-on for the sake of some cute dialogue. Nope, she’s absolutely, definitively, 100% integral to the story’s thematic premise.
DOCTOR STRANGE AND RELATIONSHIP CHARACTERS: FAIL
This is where Doctor Strange makes its first misstep with its emotional stakes. Despite a multitude of opportunities, it fails to produce even one solid relationship character.
Granted, the archetypes are largely present. We have:
- The Mentor
The Ancient One impacts Stephen’s arc the most, probably has more screentime than any other minor character, and is, for my money, the most interesting character in the story. But, with the exception of her death scene, she fails to engage with Stephen on a deeper level. Mostly, she serves simply to spew important information.
- The Love Interest
Dr. Christine Palmer is a great character, and Rachel McAdams’s warm performance pops her off the screen in her every scene. Of all the minor characters, she brings the most in emotional stakes, as we understand Stephen’s ability to emotionally relate to her will both prove his inner transformation and determine the happiness of his future. Christine’s presence at least pays tribute to the need for a relationship character. Sadly, she’s present in the movie for a bare fraction of the running time and has little impact on the actual plot.
- The Antagonist
Marvel, in general, is a great example of the fact that the best conflicts are those that result when the antagonist is a formative (even the formative) relationship character. The series has also shown us that when the antagonist is not a relationship character, he inevitably seems tacked on. Stephen and Kaecilius have no personal relationship whatsoever, which means the main conflict is actually ancillary to Stephen’s personal journey (see Test #3 below).
- The Sidekick
Finally, we have the sadly underused Mordo. In light of his role as an antagonist in future stories, his early friendship with Stephen was the perfect setup for an excellent and meaningful relationship. Regrettably, Mordo remains arguably the flattest character of the lot. His relationship with Stephen is barely that of a friend, if only because it is neverdeveloped. In the end, this makes his defection far less meaningful than it could have been.
Emotional Stakes Test #2: Does Your Story Feature Pertinent Interpersonal Conflict?
Once you’ve set up your story’s primary relationship characters, you then get to actually use these relationships in a way that creates conflict and interest.
When you hear “relationship character,” you might think “nice, happy, healthy friendship.” But I say, Ohhhhh no you don’t. Once you’ve got a relationship character, the only way to get emotional stakes is to milk that relationship for all its worth.
The stakes arise when the relationship and its positive outcome are important (even crucial) to the protagonist’s personal development—and yet that outcome is in serious doubt. Whether friends or foes, both of the characters in this relationship must be complex personalities, struggling through Lies and Truths, causing problems for themselves and each other, and ultimately making the path to true love (or whatever) anything but smooth.
Remember: in so many ways, this relationship is the story.
DOCTOR STRANGE AND INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT: FAIL
If I had to pick one single reason why Doctor Strange bored me, this is it. Its lack of prominent relationship characters (and an overemphasis on sharing its complicated magic system and backstory) snowballed into an utter lack of interpersonal conflict.
Stephen engages with a lot of conflict in trying to overcome his injuries form the car wreck and then still more as he runs through dimensions, trying first to avoid dying at Kaecilius’s hands and then trying to stop Kaecilus’s EVIL plans. But he engages is basically zero interpersonal conflict.
Yes, all of the above-mentioned (potential) relationship characters take a turn hollering at him for something. But save for an early argument with Christine, none of these scenes do anything to advance the actual relationships themselves.
Thus: the relationships are never at risk (of either crumbling or growing).
Thus: no emotional stakes.
(Want an example of what good interpersonal conflict with a relationship character looks like? Look no farther than The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, and, especially, Captain America: Civil War.)
Emotional Stakes Test #3: Have You Tied Your Emotional Stakes to the Plot Stakes?
Okay, so here you are: you’ve got some great relationship characters causing some great interpersonal conflict, which is, in turn, creating juicy emotional stakes. But have you made sure those emotional stakes are integral to the overarching main conflict of the exterior plot?
In a truly great story, everything comes together seamlessly. Every piece is part of the larger whole. Plot, character, and theme all move in such a way that they affect each other in a symbiotic circle of cause and affect. Subplots all come together in the end, preferably to move the main plot, but at least as a symbolic representation of some aspect of the theme.
The easiest way to pull this off is to make sure the principle relationship character is the antagonist. This means, in essence, that the main conflict isyour emotional stakes.
Not all stories will support this, which is fine, as long as the conflict with the main relationship character and its related emotional stakes either
1. Directly influence the events in the Climactic Moment.
2. Are the focus of the conflict resolution in the Climactic Moment.
DOCTOR STRANGE AND INTERWOVEN CONFLICT: FAIL
Yes, Doctor Strange belly-flopped on this one too. As we’ve already touched on, the exterior conflict with Kaecilius and his world-ending plan were decidedly (even egregiously) distanced from Stephen’s personal journey.
To be fair, I’m not going to hold the film’s feet to the fire on this one, since more than one Marvel movie has been guilty of this. But the bad news here is that the complete lack of any juicy subplot conflict means Doctor Strangedoesn’t do too much to distract us from this particular problem.
The result is a climactic battle that lacks any kind of emotional stakes. Yes, Stephen completes his Positive-Change Arc with a nice moment of self-sacrifice.
But the conflict itself gives us no reason to care on a personal level whether he defeats Kaecilius or parts ways with Mordo. And since his ability to win the conflict was never in any doubt, this means the Climax (which should be the tensest and most exciting part of the story) was one of the most forgettable.
Simply put, if a story fails to engage, then it fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be a criticism made of your story! Make sure your story passes these three important tests for acing its emotional stakes, and you’ll never have any problem getting readers to suspend disbelief.