So you’re writing a dystopian/fantasy/science fiction/[insert genre here] story and you’re wondering how to raise the stakes and get the reader involved. Why not create some massive and terrible power that threatens to eradicate the world/realm/human life as we know it? After all, Tolkien did it. Martin is doing it, among the numerous other things he’s doing. And two out of every three video game plotlines do it. It must be a great idea, right?
Here are three reasons why, in most cases, it’s really isn’t.
1) When everything is at stake, nothing is at stake.
If you’re at all familiar with stories that use the world-at-stake trope, you’ve probably noticed by now how few of them succeed in achieving any sort of real emotional connection with the audience. One of two things happens. The end of the world is just too large a thing to grasp fully, so the threat is unreal. There’s this brilliant passage toward the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy *MINOR SPOILER* where Arthur is in shock after the destruction of his planet and is trying to wrap his mind around it:
He tried again: America, he thought, has gone. He couldn’t grasp it, He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every “Bogart” movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger. He passed out.
When he came round a moment later he was sobbing for his mother.
Worse, if a plot doesn’t manage to establish interest on any other level, threatening the end of the world just underscores how tenuous the audience’s connection to the story is. In the worst case, as we see in some disaster movies with poor writing and unlikable characters, Armageddon can be either boring or vaguely amusing. And on the other hand, if your story is successfully making the reader care already, do you really need to tack on a doomsday scenario?
2) Don’t draw a weapon you aren’t prepared to use.
Another reason threatening the world makes for such a boring plot mechanic is that, aside from those boring disaster movies, few fictions ever follow through on the threat (the aforementioned Hitchhiker’s Guide doesn’t really fall on either side here, as the doomsday event is the setup for the plot, not the stakes). There is an expectation the audience’s minds that the conclusion of the story is pretty much forgone, as the world won’t actually be
In the case of ongoing plotlines (as in television or comics), this non-threat becomes almost comical. In the second season of Buffy, the vampire Spike makes not one but multiple attempts to unleash demons who will bring about the apocalypse/kill every human on earth/etc. We know virtually beyond a doubt that the world isn’t going to end midway through the show’s second season, so how does this even constitute a conflict? Thankfully, there are much more interesting things happening at the same time, things involving character choices and tangible stakes and sacrifice. But again, this begs the question, why even bother with threatening the end of the world? In Buffy there’s also usually a satirical aspect to the threat, and the thing it’s mocking is the story that tries to make serious use of the same mechanic. It’s best not to be the person writing that story.
3) Anticlimax is a turnoff (yes, that was a rather tame attempt at lewd humor).
Genre fiction generally favors series over standalone stories. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like series; I’m writing one right now. But the key to a good series arc is escalation. That means continually having something bigger and more gripping then what you displayed in the last installment, and the bigger you start, the faster you’re going to run out of room to escalate. If you start with the world at stake, where do you go from there?
A great example of this is BioWare’s Dragon Age series of role-playing games. In the first game, you play as a hero tasked with stopping a rather generic demon invasion called the Blight. The first game demonstrates both of the other problems I’ve named here: the Blight is far less interesting than the stories of many of the game’s side quests, and there’s never any real question as to whether the player will emerge victorious. The second game stars a refugee fleeing from the same invasion the hero of the first game overcomes. You end up involved in the politics of the city named Kirkwall, which could’ve been an interesting story in itself, but in addition to Dragon Age II’s sub-par writing, there’s an overwhelming feeling that you’re no more than a footnote against the events of the first game.
I’m not saying that world-in-peril plotlines never work, and if it happens to be that you’re writing a story consciously exploring themes surrounding the world’s potential end, it’s certainly possible that the outcome will be both insightful and engaging. But if you’re just trying to find some way to make your reader care, start with something smaller, more personal, and derived from your own experience. That’s where the best stories come from anyhow.