Essay – Low Stakes

Essay – Low Stakes

Ever since the start of the pandemic, I haven’t been interested in reading a lot of heart-stopping, high-tension, high-stakes books.

I also haven’t been writing those sorts of books either, at least, not at first. I needed lighter stories with lower stakes.

I remember the first time I realized the need for lower stakes or at least some level of safety net. It was a few years before the plague. Something had happened and I no longer felt safe. I was paralyzed when it came to writing. Couldn’t go forward with the story. I was writing the novel into darkness, and I just couldn’t move forward.

I finally figured out that I needed to sit down and plot out what I was writing, and what was going to happen to my characters. It wasn’t because I couldn’t think up things to write. What I needed was to assure myself that my characters would eventually be safe. Only then could I continue writing that particular book.

What do I mean by low stakes? One of the books I recently read is a good example of that: Legends and Lattesby Travis Baldree. (It even says in the subtitle that it is a book of high fantasy and low stakes.) It’s about an orc warrior who leaves the mercenary life to open up a coffee shop in a smallish town. Instead of saving the world, it’s all about how do we get the coffee beans? How do we bring in customers? How do we feed them?

There is some rising tension, and things do happen. But mostly, it’s sweet, cozy, and comfortable.

Low stakes.

Not all about saving the kingdom, the world, and the universe. Nope. Gotta figure out how to run my coffee shop.

My husband and I talk a lot (a lot!) about the future of publishing. What is going on in the world? What do we need to do regarding our own publishing platform?

Neither of us is really in the “write to market” camp. However, we both are trying to be aware of what does and doesn’t sell, to be “trope adjacent” as it were. I believe that low-stakes fantasy might be an up-and-coming market, though I don’t know if it will ever be a huge seller. Reaching the right level of cozy and tension isn’t easy to do. There’s no formula for it.

Cozy mysteries are sometimes low stakes. The ending does tend to be prescribed—the reader knows that the crime will be solved (not merely resolved) and the main character will be okay. In modern cozies, the main character tends to be put into at least one life-threatening situation, if not more. They’re low-stakes adjacent, which might be why they’re so very popular these days.

I don’t believe that romance is low-stakes, though it might be low-stakes adjacent because the reader knows that there will be a happily ever after. However, emotions run high in a romance. The reader needs to have all the feels. This, to me, makes it much higher stakes, that emotional roller coaster.

I am currently writing a book that’s deliberately funny and light. However, I wouldn’t call it low stakes. There’s going to be a big war before the end of it, with battles and more killing. Someday, though, I may try to deliberately write a low-stakes book, all about a bookstore, perhaps. Or maybe a coffee and tea shop. Who knows where the muse will take me?

In the meanwhile, I continue to seek out books that are low-stakes, at least for now, though I’m also reading more high-tension books. Flowing from one to the other has worked well for me, and I believe, for other readers as well, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

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