The story stakes are too big when your hero is given something to do that defies logic. In the 80’s and into the 90’s there was a phenomena of the impossible or unlikely hero. This is the epitome of the stakes being too big. If you indulge in this type of writing, your story will feel out of date. Let’s look at some examples.
WarGames (1983) is a near perfect example of this. A guy accidentally hacks into the Government’s super computer and nearly starts world war 3. It ends with him being allowed to play naughts and crosses with the computer and saving the world. In reality, you hack into a Government computer and nearly start world war 3, you are arrested. When the world is on the brink of all out nuclear war, it is NOT down to a kid to save us all. There are entire diplomatic channels, defence force strategies and thousands of people involved.
What about Star Wars I hear you say.
Let’s look at the role Luke played. He saved a person and delivered some information. He then became a cog in the machine. He was allowed to fly a ship in what was likely a suicide mission. Not a great reward. There was no “it’s all down to you kid” moment. He did his bit and was told to let the adults take over.
World wide threats need a team, if not an army to overcome. Even in a film like Independence Day which is told through the eyes of a small number of characters, it is still a global enterprise.
So what does that mean to you?
Don’t write the typical story I see so often. They are represented with the following type of loglines (I am making these up – I didn’t steal from you).
A reluctant (shy, loner, outsider) teen discovers a (something) and must save the world from an Alien invasion (disease, Evil AI, robot army).
Saving an entire planet from something is never going to come down to just one person. Especially if that person is not already a superhero or prepared for such a challenge. When stakes are so overwhelming they become unbelievable. I don’t know if you have ever read Stephen Hawking’s book “A Brief History of Time”? The numbers in that book become so large they become meaningless to the average person. That is what will happen to your story.
Having stakes that are too big will turn people away before they even get to the first page. Why? Because they will think your story is just “like those 80’s films we outgrew. No thanks”.
Try making the story a little more relatable.
When the world is invaded by Aliens a teen must battle her way out of her city in a hope of getting her sister and sick mum to the safety of the countryside.
We still have Alien Invasion and a Teen, but in a relatable setting. Even something like the Hunger Games started out as a “Just save my sister” story. It took years and several novels to bring about the world changing events. Even then the main character didn’t do it on her own. She hooked up with a revolution.
Please don’t think bigger is better when it comes to stakes. The stakes have to be big for your character, not globally. A man trying to get enough money for his daughter’s medication can be more stressful than invading aliens.