It's common in stories for spectacle to build over time. Each story arc, the stakes get higher, the drama gets more intense, the villains get more dangerous, and so on. For a story with a fixed endpoint, that's fine. So long I know where I'm going, it's just a matter of pacing the spectacle increase.

But for an ongoing story, that poses a challenge, particularly in a genre where the stakes start high. The superhero saves the city, then the world, then the universe, then the multiverse, then defeats every villain from every universe simultaneously while blindfolded and in a full body cast, and then what? How can I lower the stakes from there (or ideally, much earlier) without the audience getting bored?

How can I tell an ongoing story without falling victim to spectacle creep?

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    "Now he has to face his greatest challenge.... being a dad!" (etc) – Valorum Oct 11 at 5:49
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    Looking at various examples from popular culture (every comic book in existence, but also series such as Supernatural), I am led to believe that nobody knows how to solve this problem. With Supernatural, we have so far had monsters -> demons -> super-demon -> lucifer -> some weird ancient evil -> the sister of God. If things keep going this way, we are soon going to see God's evil dad pop in. – xLeitix Oct 11 at 10:33
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    Do you want to keep the same hero in each of the arcs? – JMac Oct 11 at 10:43
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    For a while now I've longed for a show where they dare to have an entire season of falling action after a climactic season, before they pick it up again. A whole season of just regular calm moments, maybe solving some petty crime, maybe some small-scale interpersonal conflict, maybe some helping clean up the city or the hero's lair, meetings, media coverage... heroes need downtime too! Then next season you can ramp it up again and you'll have loads of things to reference when you need them. Batman spends hours on stakeout and writing reports. I want to see that! A lot of it! – Nacht Oct 12 at 1:13
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    @GorchestopherH At the moment I'm writing a superhero story, but I've run into the same problem writing stories in other genres, so I'm more interested in general answers. – Mnemonic Oct 12 at 15:02

14 Answers 14

up vote 33 down vote accepted

There are more things you can do with stakes than escalate ad nauseam.

First, you can vary the threat. For example, Buffy jokes more than once about "saving the world again". The difference comes from saving the world from different things; a new threat might require a new approach, pose a tougher challenge than the previous threat, etc.

Second, there might be personal stakes in addition to the "save the world" stakes: save the world without letting mum find out my secret identity, save the world and my lover whom the Big Bad has put in danger to distract me, save the world from my best friend who's gone crazy. (All from Buffy again, since I've already started with that example).

Third, once in a while, you can lower the stakes. How about helping a single person who's stuck in an abusive relationship? Or not letting any baddies interfere with a friend's wedding?

Fourth, your hero might get de-powered. They suffered a serious wound in the final battle of one story, so in the next story, they're still recovering, and it hinders their ability to deal with the threat of the day. Or they're going through some emotional stuff. Or last time they got fined for damage to buildings, roads, etc., so now they need to save the world without wreaking half a city in the process. Done too often, this trope becomes annoying (as do most others), but once in a while - it adds interest, not only by making the challenge more challenging, but also by showing the hero as not all-powerful. The audience's sense of danger to the hero increases, everything becomes more tense and more exciting.

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    A truly delightful instance of "save the world in a different way" is the Buffy episode The Zeppo, where, whilst Buffy is saving the world in her usual way, an unpowered sidekick has a parallel save-the-world storyline going on. This character is usually dismissed as useless and weak, and it's nice to see them handle things for once. – muru Oct 11 at 10:54
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    "single person who's stuck in an abusive relationship" - The super hero talks to his confidant one day "My whole life I've been so focused on saving the world... now I've got to figure out how to save her world." – corsiKa Oct 12 at 22:29
  • Dealing with "[getting] fined for damage to buildings, roads, etc." without revealing one's secret identity in a modern-Western-like society seems a challenge all on its own... just not quite on par with saving the world. – α CVn Oct 17 at 19:48

I'm sure many people here are familiar enough with episodes of Doctor Who feel 2005 onwards to know they faced this problem. Here's my advice: do what the series did from 1963 to 1989 instead. In other words, don't try giving each arc higher stakes than the last one at all; just write each arc in its own terms, building on old continuity only when you have an idea for how to do so that's good in some respect other than raising stakes.

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    This -- one of the charms of the original Dr. Who was he would solve some problem that didn't matter to anyone but the dozen or so people involved. – Rob Crawford Oct 11 at 15:20
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    @RobCrawford Especially in the brilliant base under siege formula that in any other show's hands would just be a bottle episode. One RTD interview that always stuck with me is his saying he knew, long before writing Tennant's regeneration, that it would involve the Doctor saving many, then dying to save one ordinary person. – J.G. Oct 11 at 19:03

Alice: Do you remember how the villain from a month ago always said how he wanted to kill us?

Bob: Hm-mm?

Alice: Well, this new villain wants to kill us ... and murder our dog, too!

A solution could be:

Avoid falling into the trap completely

Don't set up a crescendo. Decide what's the story arc you wanna tell and stick with it. Make the story compelling, build interesting characters, and when the story eventually ends and the big bad is defeated, you'll still have your characters left.

They don't have to face a bigger challenge to be interesting - the reader that followed you up to this point will already be invested in their lives, their feelings, their personal struggles. Sure thing, if you're writing an action series or an epic fantasy it will be difficult - if not outright impossible - to build a second story arch based on character introspection alone, but this doesn't keep you for carrying on this kind of narration.

Maybe there will be another challenge, but you don't need to set up an escalation. The other challenge may be just different in nature. Spoiler about Sanderson mistborn series (The Final Empire - the Well of Ascension) ahead:

In The Final Empire, the main characters effectively dethrone an evil, immortal almost god-like emperor - the stakes being pretty high. It's true that in the following book the stakes do get higher (as there are hints of a prophecy and things do get worse), but I would argue that the Well of Ascension is mainly focused on the difficulties of running the capital city after the empire is gone. Now, running and protecting a city shouldn't be more difficult than killing an immortal emperor-god, and yet it's interesting since there are a lot of themes involved, and space to explore characters already presented in the first book.

So, don't set up a worse challenge - chances are that the first challenge was pretty difficult in the first place - set up a different one. Better still, carry your character development forward.

Your hero may as well be an immortal superhero at the end of book 1, but he/she will still have to face personal issues inherently connected to being human (and if he/she's not human, with being alive).

A lot of story arcs end with the hero getting the love interest and stomping the evil guy, but few tells us what happens when you have to keep a relationship (compare this as how few books deal with the struggle of administrating the world and preventing an evil guy from resurfacing).

Ask yourself:

  • Are my characters all right with everything that happened in story arc 1?
  • Do they have some unfinished business to attend to?
  • Did they meet their goals? If so, are they content with their new life, or do they strive to some other goal?
  • Are there still problems in need of fixing in my setting? Are there political struggles? Is there space for improvement? If the answer is no, why is that? Did I overlook something?

Also, remember that story arcs don't need to be close to each other, at least not necessarily. That's something that happens a lot in tv series, cartoons or animes, but it's just because it maximizes viewer attention without having to deal with uneventful periods or character growing up, or getting older, or changing alltogether. If you feel like it, you can put a time gap of years, even, between a story and the next - just remember that your characters will be a little different as time passes.

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    Going off the Mistborn example, it happens again in the series after the original trilogy. The ending of the trilogy is a very large scale event, but then the next series tones it down quite a bit, and it focuses on a much smaller scope. The caveat is that it doesn't follow all the same characters. – JMac Oct 11 at 10:46

I think this is a TV/Comic problem. What I mean by that is you're used to ingesting stories which are made for TV, probably broadcast; or comics where each issue must progress with the same cast and have hundreds of stories. They have very short amounts of time to tell individual stories and if they engage in development, rather than returning to the same archetypal characters you often find those stories suffer given time. (note, not allowing development has it's own consequences). It's largely an issue of branding. The characters become iconic, farcical. And then it's super hard to change them. It's hard to challenge a group of people who have already been challenged. It's hard to maintain a readership or viewership when you shift. Agents of Shield is a prime example of a show suffering from this spectacle creep; perhaps it's fitting that it's both a comic book and a TV show in many respects.

If you don't want have this problem; the answer is actually quite simple. Don't make this problem for yourself. Don't play the game where you can only tell stories about a set of iconic people. Kill people off. Let them graduate from the trials and tribulations you've thrown at them and move on to new people with new ideas and new problems. Make the brand your world and not your people. Or, be very stringent about never escalating the spectacle; and if you do escalate... end the arc, write the end.

Look, it's not like the universe of books is having an escalation war. Many books in the past are still interesting. It's possible to jump from reading a book with high stakes to a book with different (if not lower, more personal) stakes. And if it's not true that stakes must escalate for the universe of books, it should be possible to build a series of loosely related works that do not engage in escalatory warfare with each other.

Peaks are defined by the space in between

People, as a general rule, are much better at comparing things than they are at measuring absolutes. That's why we don't measure pain in kilo-ouches, but instead tell the doctor that "it hurts twice as much as a stubbed toe". The same thing is true for story telling. If you want a big, epic confrontation to feel more epic, then you surround it with smaller confrontations.

Episodic TV shows naturally have this sort of pacing. After a big show-stopping season finale where The Doctor saves all of time itself, they'll go back to saving hospitals, cities, and individuals. Then the next season finale will roll around and it's time for another epic confrontation. But because of the smaller stories in between this one and the previous finale, they're no longer in direct comparison, and while it still needs to be epic it doesn't necessarily have to be more epic.

Readers like these sorts of structures. High drama is exhausting, and after a particularly tense climax it is nice to relax and enjoy something with slightly lower stakes for a while.

"Personal's not the same as important. People just think it is."

-Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (and later Men at Arms)

Conflict is measured by the stakes involved. But it's measured by how much the stakes matter to the readers and characters rather than how much they matter overall. The chance to earn the forgiveness of a loved one can be just as dramatic as the fate of the entire world.

An excellent example of this principal can be found in the Dresden Files (although I'll have to be slightly oblique about it to avoid spoilers). While I haven't taken a poll, I think that it's safe to say that as of this writing the most climactic book of the series is book twelve, Changes. But if you actually measure the potential death toll of villainous victories, several of the other books (particularly Dead Beat and Cold Days, both of which threaten the immediate destruction of most of Chicago and a great deal of bad followup afterwards) actually have higher stakes. But Changes feels the most dramatic because in that book the stakes are intensely personal.

By making the stakes more personal you can increase the tension the readers feel without making the stakes feel ridiculously over-the-top.

Effects can matter as much as stakes

The other reason Changes feels more dramatic than the other books is that Changes lives up to its name and significantly shakes up the status quo. In most of the books, after the antagonist is defeated, things mostly go back to normal. Harry might have a new injury, or a new ally, or a new tool (or all three), but mostly things stay the same. That's not the case with Changes, and that makes the conflict feel more serious than the surrounding books.

The more the conflict changes the protagonists, the more epic it will feel regardless of stakes.

Change the type of threat, and play to your hero's weaknesses

Part of the problem is that there is a natural power creep in long running stories. Once your hero levels up their vampire-melting death ray so that they can defeat Dracula, then it becomes difficult to reach the same level of threat from any vampire that's equal to or weaker than Dracula ever again. So you get a more powerful vampire, but once they've beaten that one they need an even more powerful one...

Of course, you could de-power your hero, but that gets old pretty fast, and readers like powerful heroes.

But if, instead of throwing another vampire at your hero you instead throw a werewolf - then suddenly their vampire-melting ray is useless! By changing up the types of threats your protagonists face, you can moderate the power level of those threats while still keeping things interesting.

By using threats that are outside of your hero's area of expertise, you can stymie them with threats that another protagonist might find significantly less threatening than what they previously faced. A corrupt politician might seem like nothing compared to a dragon the size of a house, but the Hulk will have a much harder time dealing with the politician.

As a bonus, pushing a hero outside their comfort zone is an excellent way to provoke change and character growth.

All told, variation is the key to success. If the hero faces the same thing every time, then by necessity each threat must be bigger than the previous one, because that's the only way to compare them. But by changing the stakes, and the possible solutions, and the effects of the conflict you can make each one feel individually dramatic without having to upstage your previous conflicts.

Similar to what has already been said, but I'd say do what they do in long-running television series. In Law and Order, they have mostly single episodes dealing with a new criminal. Same in many detective stories or variants of Sherlock Holmes like Monk or Elementary or The Mentalist. The same in many hospital shows like House or Scrubs, another disease or new issue shows up. Same in Buffy, as Galastel points out. Same in Military Mission shows, like Seals, or other savior missions, like Leverage or the old Mission Impossible, same in political shows, like Madam Secretary, similar in Star Trek, all the mysteries of the universe and cultures is never ending. And on and on.

If there is any arc for the main character(s), it is a very slow moving one, aimed to run for seven seasons or more. For a book, the approximate life of the series. But your main characters can also remain static and not evolve, the trick then is to bring in new characters and let them have character arcs. You avoid spectacle creep by devising a dynamic that does not allow it. In part, that can be by never really defeating the bad guys. House never cured all diseases. Sherlock never solves all crime, Madam Secretary never brings permanent world peace, the military never defeats all terrorism, the cops never finish locking up predators.

You make your story the same, whatever your heroes can do, will simply never be enough to permanently end the underlying source of conflict. In a way, Spectacle Creep happens because you DO solve giant problems. Think of your series more like Star Trek or a Detective Series. Your heroes are present with a problem, the readers have fun watching them having a harrowing adventure solving the problem, and they look forward to the next such adventure with no expectation of the stakes getting any higher.

Change your hero

A classic solution to this problem is to change your hero frequently.

Let's take a look at Jojo's Bizarre Adventure genealogy, each generation fighting a threat, but each new hero not always stronger than the previous one:

  • Jonathan Joestar
  • Joseph Joestar, grandson of the previous
  • Jotaro Kujo, grandson of the previous
  • Josuke Higashikata, uncle of the previous
  • Giorno Giovanna, son of Jonathan Joestar
  • Jolyne Cujoh, daughter of Jotaro Kujo

Frequent reasons for changing the hero are: aging, death, contract breach with the actor, ...

Change the place

Your hero is a traveller, as in Kino's Journey, Doctor Who or Galaxy Express 999, and will face different geopolitical situations each day.

Change the roles

Shuffle the cards, like in American Horror Story, where each season has a partially common cast, but different roles and a different ultimate survivor.

But don't reset the world

Oh please, don't do time travelling or mirage/dream worlds to revert a situation as it invalidates too much of what your readers have enjoyed previously: avoid such blanking solutions at all costs.

  • The Shannara series occasionally did something similar to this as well. The hero of book 2 was the grandson (? something like that ?) of the hero from book 1 and then his children were the heroes of book 3. – Tim B Oct 12 at 8:39
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    Frequent reasons for changing the hero are: aging, death, contract breach with the actor, ... Are you familiar with the Dread Pirate Roberts, sir? – Tobia Tesan Oct 13 at 20:44
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    @TobiaTesan Are you familiar with the successive wielders of the Sword of Martin? – Cœur Oct 14 at 2:57

I'm going to suggest Jim Butcher's Dresden Files as an example. In every book, Harry Dresden faces a threat. Sometimes it's something that would doom the world, sometimes it's something that would doom a friend. He saves the world from one of the Faerie Queens early on, so if it were about the threat much of the series would be anticlimactic.

Part of what makes this work is seeing how Dresden (or whoever is the protagonist - there's shorter fiction with other viewpoint characters) is going to win this time. The methods that saved the world from a group of necromancers are going to be useless for getting a dear friend out of a dangerous political fix another time. The problems come in varying sizes, but they're usually fresh.

There's also longer-range plots going on, with often unknown stakes, and character development.

So far, I believe there's fifteen novels and two book-sized collections of shorter fiction, and it's still exciting.

  • I was thinking Dresden Files but for a different reason - Jim Butcher has a plan for the series to culminate in a Big Apocalyptic Trilogy, so each climax isn't so much creep as progression towards the end goal. – Phil Oct 12 at 14:35

I know Buffy has already been mentioned a couple of times, but I think the single biggest example has already been missed.

If you look at the first 5 seasons of Buffy there is a steady increase in scope and power of the threats. It goes from an old and evil vampire, to an eviller vampire, to giant demon snakes, to destroying the world. The bad guys go from vampire->bigger vampire->giant demon->evil government agency->goddess...

But what do they now do for season 6? They already did destroying the world and fighting against a literal god.

Instead they reset everything and made it much more personal. It's about the people and the friends, the "bad guys" are a bunch of incompetent kids and the real "bad guy" turns out to be one of Buffy's friends going evil. Yes it's a "destroy the world" threat at the end but the stakes are very different and the solution isn't "kill the evil being".

With the reset complete they are then able to ramp it up again for season 7.

  • To pick a nit: The boss vampire of season one was much older than (in fact the grandsire of) that of season two, but hinted in one remark that the latter was more evil. The threat in seasons one and seven was to unleash hell on Earth (whatever that might mean); in seasons two and five, to suck Earth itself into hell. – Anton Sherwood Oct 12 at 0:44

Focus on the characters themselves

By the time your audience followed all the adventures you created, the audience most likely got emotionally connected to your positive characters. So exploit it! Create a drama between them, where a conflict would be not between the hero and the world, but between the hero, her/his friends and hero's imperfections in between. That would be a nice change which would not only keep your audience engaged, but create a plato between peaks of your "spectacle" plot, as Arcanist Lupus said. But be reasonable, and don't let the pacing get stuck in drama forever.

The most prominent example I can think of is Breaking Bad, where in 1st and 2nd seasons were pure action with dissolving a corpse in an acid bath and bodies falling from planes, and the subsequent seasons, while not totally abandoning the "action" part, became more focused on relationship problems - just to end the story on a highly spectacular climax.

I would say focus more on character. "He's saved the world. He's saved the universe! But can he save his deepest friendship after _____?" This could also be a backstory vehicle, but leave the backstory in the background (probably). The problem to solve is always in the now.

Make the stakes more personal for your protagonist(s).

The stakes can be smaller than those involved the previous episodes without feeling anticlimactic if your characters would feel their loss more personally. They've saved the world, now they have to save their friends, etc.

Example: Babylon 5, season 4. Half way through the season, the protagonists face down and stop a pair of over-powered alien races whose conflict had boiled over resulting in them starting to destroy entire planets; races which both seemed individually so powerful that they would be unstoppable previously. The stakes were the destruction of dozens of populated worlds, with many hundreds of billions of lives in the balance.

Then, they set off to remove the corrupt government of Earth. The stakes are the freedom of a handful of billions. Mathematically, it seems to be smaller stakes. But the characters have a personal connection to the stakes at a more fundamental level, so we can believe that it's just as import to them that they do it, and that makes us care whether they win or lose just as much, and perhaps even more.

(Babylon 5 season 5 is an object lesson in how not to do it, but that's a different story...)

Although J.R.R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings seems to "spectacle creep" from evading the Black Riders, to saving Rohan, to saving Gondor, to the final confrontation with Mordor, he ends the story with the Sacking of the Shire.

This end the story on a kind of small personal battle for the Hobbits, which, in the grand scheme of things in Middle Earth is not so important. In my opinion, this kind of checks/resets the spectacle creep. Using a method similar to this might allow to you reset your own stories "creep".

The other thing that Tolkien seems to do is have his main characters (the Hobbits), play roles that are not the super-strong, all-powerful hero trope. Thus, while they are swept along with the main events of the story, they each find their own small individual stories and battles. This also seems to dampen the spectacle creep throughout the entire story, not just at the end.

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While there are already many good answers, there's one option which I haven't seen mentioned (if I just missed it, sorry about that):

Your hero may discover that the solution to the problem wasn't actually as good as thought. And now he has to fix it.

For example, say the world had been held hostage by a powerful, evil wizard. Your hero finally managed to defeat the wizard by essentially disabling his magic. Great, problem solved, world saved.

Well, except that in the next book, it turns out that there are side effects of this anti-magic. And the side effects turn out to be quite damaging in themselves. So now the hero has to actually re-enable magic, but in a way that the evil wizard does not regain his power.

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