“Raising the stakes” is the buzzword for thriller writers. Books that purport to tell authors how to write best-selling or breakout novels use the term more than “and” or “it.” Constantly raising the stakes is supposed to intensify the reader’s interest by making a successful outcome more important and less likely all at once. What it’s mainly doing is killing thrillers for anyone looking for more than a comic book.
There are three major symptoms. First is the tendency toward apocalyptic plots. The best example of this is 24, where nothing qualifies as a crisis unless the fate of the nation/world/solar system/galaxy is at stake. It might be fun once, but after that, how far can the tension be ratcheted up before burnout results? The copycats that sprung up are more a reflection of the entertainment industry’s piggyback philosophy than a sea change in taste. Remember, Michael Bay does not make thrillers, no matter what his marketing people want you to think. He blows shit up. Period.
An inevitable side effect of constantly raising the stakes, is the eventual loss of believability. Die Hard was a classic, treading the line between thriller and action movie with a sure touch, and had a manageable group of people in an enclosed space. Die Harder had the people at risk on an airplane that had to land in a blizzard (best case scenario) or blow up (worst case). Die Hard With a Vengeance brought back original director (John McTiernan), who recognized the franchise had crossed over into Bay-like action and treated the whole thing with tongue deep in cheek. Live Free or Die Hard might have been the worst movie ever made. (I’ve not seen Transformers 2, and, if there’s a God, I won’t.)
The Die Hard movies eventually fall apart because the situations become so dire John McClain can’t possibly get out of them. The level of disbelief to be suspended is so great the suspense is killed. You’re back into Michael Bay-land, where all you care about—all you can care about—isn’t whether Bruce Willis pulls it off, but how much shit gets blown up while he does it.
Raising the stakes is a component of the implausibility problem. Another weakness of the modern thriller is used to raise the stakes: the dumbass protagonist. This is a hero/heroine/group of people who, when faced with a decision, will automatically do whatever is calculated to make the situation worse. A perfectly reasonable solution may be in front of them—going to the police now comes to mind—but some reason will be manufactured (lack of trust, bad previous experience) to prevent this.
Let’s say the hero is a middle school English teacher who finds $200,000 misplaced by a killer. The killer wants the money back and promises not to kill the teacher if he gets it. Granted, he’s a killer, so lying is pretty far down his list of transgressions he’s worried about. Still, your choices are: give back the money and (maybe live), or keep the money and use your skills as a middle school English teacher to outwit a professional criminal who kills people for a living. Good luck with that. (If this is a movie, the teacher will be young and hot (think Jennifer Anniston), blind, and confined to a wheelchair.)
Thrillers live through suspense. Suspense is not action; it’s the threat of action. Possibly the greatest thriller ever is Day of the Jackal. While reading (or watching) it, the back of your mind is always aware that the Jackal doesn’t kill DeGaulle, because you know that’s not how DeGaulle dies. Still, how are they going to stop him? Not a lot of explosions, no large body counts, most of the dialog is quiet and terse. Why does it work?
Psycho. Rear Window. Jaws. The Exorcist. Alien The French Connection. How much actually happens in these movies? Hitchcock, Spielberg, Freidkin, and Scott keep you on the edge of your seat because of what might plausibly happen. As soon as it happens, the tension is released. There might be anticipation of more to come, but the story relaxes until it can be revved up again. As men of my age know, this isn’t as easy as it looks and sometimes takes a while.
Do you distinguish between thrillers and blowing shit up? Do you think constantly raising the stakes intensifies the action, or dilutes it by making it unbelievable?