High Stakes in Mysteries

I’m reading Revising Your Novel by Janice Hardy and here’s a bit from the book that made me laugh. It’s from a section dealing with how to fix scenes where stakes might be too high, or not high enough.

“If the protagonist walked away, what would change? This can help spot stakes that seem high, but aren’t really. For example, ‘they could die’ should be the highest stake of all, but if the protagonist walks away she’ll live. Problem solved. Sure, others might die, but do readers really care about a faceless mass of unnamed people? Nah.”

That made me think about something similar, one of the biggest issues for me in reading (and writing) a mystery series.

Those ending scenes when everything’s about to be wrapped up, all will be disclosed, and there will be the final life-or-death battle between the good guy and the bad guy. Yes there are authors out there that kill off the protagonist of a series, but that’s rare. So is there any reader out there who thinks the protagonist might actually die in those scenes? Most commonly, no.

So then how high are the stakes, really? If you know the main character is going to survive, then there isn’t any reason to have that whole final scene. When I’m reading a mystery series and get to that part, to be honest, I skip it and go the ending where all the threads get explained. And even as I write one of those scenes, in the back of my mind I’m thinking ‘how many are going to skip this?’.

What makes those final high stakes scenes work for me as a reader, and that I need to remember as a writer, is to place the risk elsewhere. Since I know the protagonist is going to survive, then what keeps me reading is if the author has taken the one thing that is most important to the protagonist, and put that at risk.

If that character cares deeply about something, and that could be taken away, then I’m going to be hooked as a reader and race through the tense scenes. Think about it. An author may not kill off the protagonist, but it’s way easier to remove something the character cares about. Secondary characters can be mourned and then replaced, right?

I want the risk, the scene that keeps my heart racing, to be something where I don’t know what the author is going to do. Something where I don’t sit back and scoff and say, ‘go ahead and pull the trigger; you’re not going to kill off the main guy in your series’.

As an additional thought, that type of scene might work just fine in a stand-alone mystery (since there’s no series, the protagonist might not make it) or in the first or second books. Mainly because you don’t know if the author is going to stick around and make a series or not. But after the third book, when a series is here to stay, that final scene stops working for me.

And I stop reading them.

There are some cases where I stop with the whole series. My husband and I used to be big fans of John Sandford. But after twenty-some books they all sound alike. The protagonist wanders around and asks questions, the answers lead up to the final life-or-death scene, and the protagonist survives. The books are so boring now I can’t even go back and re-read them.

And after this, I go back and re-read the endings of my books and squirm a bit. In my defense, it’s the first few so the series isn’t in concrete yet. Which means…who knows what’s going to happen in the next one?

(Ha! Aren’t I tricky, sneaking in a blatant teaser?)

4 thoughts on “High Stakes in Mysteries

  1. I’ve been turning this over in my mind a lot, thinking about the books I’ve read and what compels me to turn the page then pick up the next book in the series. I should admit, right off the bat, that mortal danger is not a big draw for me — I want to know my favorite characters will live … it’s what they end up having to live WITH after all is said and done that keeps me turning the page. I can’t recall if it’s Dwight Swain or Jack Bickham (or both!!) who talk about conflict as being, not specifically action, but something the character wants. How much they want it (in other words, how much it impacts their life) determines how high the stakes are. Whether or not you get to eat a whole chocolate cake is small stakes. Whether or not you get an award for making the best chocolate cake and therefore gain a reputation that will bring you customers so you can provide for your family is high stakes — higher if there are additional things to lose like your home, car, respect, etc. When an author can make me see how important the goals of the characters are to them, I will pick up the next book and the story will seem fresh — even if everyone lives!


    • You hit the nail on the head, as always – I want to know what the character has to live with. That’s it exactly. I kind of want to go back and rewrite earlier books!


      • You don’t need to — you (also) nailed it! I think when you immerse yourself in stories as you have done all your life, a lot of those things become as instinctive as breathing — you “do” them and you don’t even think about it because it simply feels right. The only time you’d need to pull out the analytical tools is when you’ve written something that isn’t sitting right, or isn’t quite satisfying. The tools help you more easily identify what needs to be addressed.


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