Do You Really Have to Up the Stakes?

I recently binged the entire series of Cold Case, which was a police procedural that ran for seven seasons in the United States from 2003 to 2010. I remembered liking the show when it initially aired so tracked it down on streaming to watch start-to-finish.

But watching it highlighted something that happens with a lot of television shows for me. They take a good premise with lots of meat to it–in this show it was investigating cold cases in the Philadelphia area–and then they ruin it by trying to up the stakes.

That is my personal opinion as a viewer, of course. But I’m going to use this series as an example of what I mean.

The series revolves around a team of detectives who investigates cold cases, often cases that are decades old. That alone is interesting and has plenty of inherent conflict. Someone died. They were murdered. Who did it? Why?

In addition I really liked that the show incorporated good music from each time period. So, crime drama, yay. Good music, yay. Likeable characters, great. Give me that for years and I’m happy.

But about three years in they must’ve decided that was too boring. Maybe ratings were slipping and they were settling into their long-term audience and it wasn’t a big enough audience for the powers that be. Or maybe some new writer came on and wanted to shake things up. Or the original writer stepped back. Something happened.

And suddenly the lead detective has to get shot.

And then later when they decide yet again that it’s getting too boring they shoot another detective.

And then they have someone run the lead detective off the road and she almost drowns.

And instead of focusing on her cases when she gets back she starts stalking the guy who ran her off the road and we’re made to think she maybe killed him.

None of that has anything to do with solving cold cases.

And this is not the first series I’ve seen do this. I finally stopped watching NCIS when I realized that every major female character who left the show was going to do so in a body bag.

It seems with all of these shows that someone somewhere is like, “Hey, we need to up the stakes. Get a ratings boost. Shoot someone. Or kill someone. Put the major characters in danger somehow.”

Even Law & Order occasionally makes this mistake. The rape cop gets raped. The criminal investigators get bombed by the Russian mob. The prosecutor has to go into Witness Protection.

For me as the audience, that’s not the way to increase my engagement. It’s a distraction from what I’m watching that show for.

That first shooting is when I thought, “Eh, do I really want to keep watching this?” The second one just pissed me off. And the car accident had me seriously debating whether it was worth watching to the end, but I was close enough I did.

If they hadn’t cancelled the series when they did I would’ve probably stopped watching at the whole, “rescue her sister from some random drug dealing jerk” story line they tried to introduce at the end. Like, what? Why?

I just wanted likeable people solving challenging murders. With good music in the background. Is that too much to ask for?

I’ll add here that I also have this pet peeve when it comes to personal relationships in series.

Like, did that character really need to cheat just so you’d have some conflict? Did that other one really need to be an ass? Can’t we have parts of the story that are just decent and good and work fine?

I bounced on Grey’s Anatomy at the exact same point twice for that reason. There’s so much conflict inherent in the setting did we really need the guy who’s supposed to be her one love to reject her when she puts it all on the line? Couldn’t you think of something else to move the story forward?

I think the key in these situations is to understand the audience and what they want. And it’s possible I am not the main audience. My mom still watches Grey’s Anatomy and she had no problem with that issue. So maybe she’s the super-watcher that these shows want. Me, I’m the canary in the coalmine most times and I stop watching a show about five years before it gets cancelled if it makes it that long.

So to tie this back to novel writing since this is presumably a writing blog at times…

If you want to write one of those long-running more episodic series with an investigator or detective or super solider or someone who has to go solve a new problem each book, maybe you don’t need to up the personal stakes each time.

Maybe they or their family don’t need to get hurt by the bad guy. Maybe they don’t need to discover the nefarious secret plot that will bring down their organization. Maybe just having a cool, interesting job with a challenge to solve each time is enough…

Because one of the other issues that can come up is that when you raise the stakes, it’s hard to lower them again.

Someone somewhere said that if you have the protagonist saving the city in the first book, they need to save the country in the next one, and the world in the one after that, and the universe in the one after that.

You don’t start with them saving the universe. And you don’t have them save the universe and then go home to rescue cats from trees–unless you’re writing an entirely different sort of story that most authors don’t write.

To be fair, I will add here that there are absolutely series where the whole point is finding the nefarious secret plot or overcoming the bad guy who’s harmed your family. But those series all end, too.

Maybe the author keeps writing in that world or they try to introduce a new big bad guy, but generally defeating the bad guy or uncovering the nefarious plot is when things run out of steam. So for a never-ending series, that is not the way to go.

Anyway. Just a thought.

Author: M.L. Humphrey

M.L. Humphrey is a former securities regulator, registered stockbroker (although only briefly), and consultant on regulatory and risk-related matters for large financial institutions with expertise in the areas of anti-money laundering regulation, mutual funds, and credit rating agencies. Since 2013 M.L. has also been a published author under a variety of pen names and across a variety of subjects and genres. You can contact M.L. at mlhumphreywriter [at] gmail.com.

One thought on “Do You Really Have to Up the Stakes?”

  1. I’m reminded of Enid Blyton’s mysteries: every book in the series was the same arc of discover a small mystery, investigate, solve and continue the same privileged but ordinary life and they were still vastly popular many decades after release (they might still be); even the different series were the same apart from altering the number of plucky British children and the pet—that said there were rumours that Blyton would have had Uhluhtc, Simon’s pet octopus, evolve throughout the series if she hadn’t died just after finishing Nine in a Coastal Town.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: