I was rereading The Accidental Hero by Matt Myklusch not so long ago. It’s really good—hence why I was rereading it. I noticed that I’ve been picking up on foreshadowing and things that I obviously didn’t get the first time around. One thing in particular I’ve been noticing, though, are the stakes.
Not that stakes don’t get noticed the first time around, of course. Their purpose is sort of to be noticed. Anyway, fairly early on in the book, the reader finds out that if X happens (or doesn’t happen), it results in Y. (Pretend that makes sense, because I’d hate to give away spoilers.) We can easily deduce that Y is a bad thing and we don’t want it to happen.
Then, a little further on, we realize that Y is actually the stakes. If our hero doesn’t succeed, Y is going to happen and that would be disastrous.
Of course, it all makes things a little more exciting. By this point, I’m invested in the protagonist and I don’t want Y to happen to him. Actually, even if I wasn’t invested, I still wouldn’t want it to happen, because who likes to see anything bad happen to anyone?
But that isn’t all of it it. Some of this is subtle, and so maybe I’m only consciously noticing it since I know how the book ends, but I see that there are occasionally little things that happen that not only remind us what the stakes are, but also bring us a little closer to it.
Example. Say our protagonist wants dessert. In order to get dessert, however, he has to eat his vegetables. The stakes? If he doesn’t eat his veggies fast enough, his sister is going to eat the rest of the dessert without sharing.
Sisters are mean like that.
So as he’s eating his veggies, his sister is inching closer to the, say, tub of ice cream. But she isn’t just nagging and saying, “I get the ice-cream if you don’t hurry up!”
No, instead, she’s getting the chocolate syrup out, and searching through the drawer for that ice cream scoop. It’s actually showing instead of telling. Her actions are showing the protagonist (and also the reader) that not only does he have a time limit, but the clock didn’t conveniently freeze—it’s ticking down. She finds the ice cream scoop in the drawer—success! She sticks her tongue out at the protagonist and starts to scoop it out of the tub. The ice cream is frozen rock solid and in her attempt to get some, the scoop slips out of her hand. (Hey, whoever said scooping ice cream is easy? It takes skill!)
The protagonist realizes this is his chance and he shovels three bites of veggies in his mouth at once. (Apparently, he wasn’t taught to thoroughly chew and swallow his food before taking another bite.). The sister picks the scoop up again and gets her ice-cream out and plops it into her bowl. Ha! Now for the chocolate syrup.
But the protagonist still has a few bites of veggies left. Is he going to make it?
Anyway, now imagine if all we had was the ticking clock, and the sister wasn’t actually doing anything. There’s a timer, and the protagonist can easily see his seconds sliding away, while there’s still a heaping mound—an entire mountain, even—of green veggies on his plate. That could still have the same effect. It’s still tense and we still wonder if he’ll finish in time. We may even be making faces and wondering what kind of veggie it is. Maybe it’s that frozen stir-fry stiff with the squeaky, rubbery green beans and the slimy mushrooms. Yuck.
However, there’s a difference. Seeing the clock tick is all great. But if the sister starts pulling out her chocolate syrup and sprinkles, we know not only that the ticking is happening, but the stakes are real. There’s no easy way out of this.
So go eat your vegetables in a timely manner. And if you’re lucky, maybe I’ll share my ice cream.