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.

Effective Communication is Key

Don’t worry my writer followers, although this touches on coronavirus (again) it is also geared towards writers at the end, so hang in there with me.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been spending what is probably too much time trying to figure out what was headed my way and how to prepare for it when it comes to COVID-19, the latest coronavirus outbreak. (When my grandma asked me yesterday if I’d stocked up for this thing, I said “Yes, five weeks ago” and I was not kidding. Better to be prepared and not need it than not prepare in my opinion.)

At the end of the day the best resources I found were on Twitter. Most of those resources have been very good about simplifying highly technical medical discussions so that someone like me–an interested layperson with no medical training–can understand what they were saying. (Flatten the curve, social distancing, etc.)

(I have bookmarks right now to @JeremyKonyndyk, @CT_Bergstrom, @ScottGottliebMD, and @juliettekayyem among others if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole yourself.)

But I’ve been thinking a lot about a thread I saw last week by what was probably a highly-educated researcher summarizing very important research. (I want to say it was about IGG antibodies, but don’t quote me on that because I am not a medical researcher and I can’t find the thread to verify.)

I ran across this particular thread because one of the people I was following had shared it and it was supposed to contain some sort of good news with respect to the virus. But by the time I finished the thread I had no clue what it was saying. None.

What they provided was a series of technical facts that made perfect sense to them. Something along the lines of “At 2 days, XYZ levels are .213% but by 5 days they have dropped to .013% but FGH levels have risen to 3%.”

Anyone in their field would’ve probably read that summary and said, “Oh, wow. Great news. Thanks for sharing.”

But for those of us who didn’t know what those abbreviations meant or what the percent values represented, we were completely lost. That researcher needed one or two tweets more to say, “And this is what that means.”

The reason I bring it up here is because at the very bottom of the thread someone had actually responded something along the lines of “Could you please simply that for us non-technical types?” and the author of the thread replied, “I did.”

I laughed, because, well, no. They did not.

They were so caught up in their area of expertise that they couldn’t step back from it to make what they were saying accessible to a non-technical audience. Which is absolutely crucial when dealing with an issue like we’re dealing with right now. The scientists and doctors can see what’s happening in their area of expertise, but then they need to pass that information on to others to get them to act.

Someone needs to translate R-nought values and CFRs into something my grandma can understand.

It’s not enough to know something or to personally understand it. If you want others to learn or to take action based upon what you know, you have to be able to translate what you know in such a way that others can also understand and act upon it.

As most of you who follow this blog know, I write a lot of non-fiction, some of it on more technical topics like Microsoft Excel and regulatory compliance. One of the consistent challenges in writing those books is determining who my audience is, because it can’t be everyone. I have to choose a target knowledge level for my audience and then present that audience with enough information to further their understanding but not so much information that I lose them and not at such a simple level that they disconnect and move on because they already know everything I’m saying.

That means I can’t stop in the middle of a book on regulatory compliance fundamentals and have a ten-page debate with myself about the optimal regulatory structure for the financial services industry. I may be able to write those ten pages, but that book is not the place to do it.

You have to know your audience and gear your message to that audience.

I’ve seen this issue play out often with those who have technical training. They want to be absolutely 100% precise about what they’re saying because they know all the nuance. But being absolutely 100% precise only works if your audience is full of experts. If they’re not, you will lose them by being too precise.

The best discussion I ever saw of this issue was in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass. I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to teach or persuade others because it does a tremendous job of walking through how to meet your audience where they are right now and move them forward from that point. It truly is a masterclass in rhetoric.

So bringing this back to writing and being a writer and the lesson we can all learn from this. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction it’s important to step outside of your viewpoint and ask what your audience is going to perceive. Have you given them enough information to understand what you’re telling them? Are you making assumptions about their level of knowledge that you shouldn’t be? Whether it’s explaining the relationship between two characters, describing the room they’re sitting in, or letting your readers know what XYZ stands for and what a level of .125% means, it’s all the same issue.

You can’t bring others along with you and get them to where you want them to be if you can’t communicate effectively.