'Stakes' are a kind of narrative incarnation of the emotional/gravity-like force that drives things. Without stakes, the kind that emotionally connects, there basically is no story, no matter how many books about the craft of storytelling you may have read that try to sell you the special secret of the deep down meanings and whatever that make stories 'work'. You know, those Joseph Campbell knockoffs that want to make it all about The Hero with a Thousand Faces or something along those lines, mostly 'mythological' and very probably Jungian. Or maybe someone else comes along and finds some amazing new paradigm that's 'it', like James Bonnet's Stealing Fire from the Gods. Yada yada yada.
It is true that all these things are conducive to providing suitable backgrounds and frameworks; settings; meta-contexts that have a familiar ring and resonate with stuff in our psyche, because our psyches have stuff in common—whatever that 'stuff' is, and please don't ask, because I have no idea! There are basic story themes that connect with what we understand.
But, let's face it, there is only so much mileage to be gotten out of The Hero with a Thousand Faces in actual 'engage the audience' terms. Because, when you come down to it, it's all about someone (usually a male) finding he doesn't fit into the narrow confines of his group's world-view, leaving or being made to leave said group, going through hell to some place where he finds some treasure that he can bring back to the world, and usually to the group that he didn't fit into and maybe never will, and this in due course brings some kind of saving element on enlightenment to these folks. In the process he often 'saves himself', whatever that means in the context, or sometimes has has to do this first. There are variations, but they're not as varied as you might think. The thing about Stealing Fire from the Gods is, of course, that it's just a new-sounding variant on the same theme; and when you strip it down to its skeleton it's pretty much about the 1000-faced hero. The 'gods' got stuff that could make men like gods and the hero steals it and brings it to the unwashed masses; with a variety of possible consequences, ranging from becoming a benevolent king or popular hero, who ultimately turns against himself—because he's a tard at heart; not really that smart at all, and unable to understand the basics of the 'rising to the top' thingie, which is always followed by a 'trying to stay at the top' that never works for long and therefore by a 'sinking to the bottom', or, even more seriously, sudden death—to being punished by the gods/fate/his people for his deeds (or maybe that's actually the same thing as the first). Actually the affair is even sillier than that, because Bonnet seems to think that the story-teller himself is one such hero. Which is total bollocks. A decent story-teller is just a guy or gal like you and you with a passion for inventing stuff in his head—a process known sometimes as daydreaming—and writing it down or talking about it or making a film or a play or something like that.
So we're back to the multi-faced hero. And that's it? Same guy. A thousand faces. Sound boring to me, no matter how profound. And, to be sure, it's enough to concoct a story. But, to refer to an image I used in another blog, it's not enough in terms of emotional energy. I'm quoting myself here, sorry about that. I was trying to provide a metaphor for the difference and relationship between 'emotion' and 'reason':
Think of water flowing downhill. 'Emotion' is the force of gravity that makes it flow. 'Reason' is the structure of the terrain through which it flows and which thus guides its movements.
The emotional energy created by mythos per se is not nearly sufficient to drive and sustain the drive of a story—except for those, of course, who have some special emotional connection with 'mythos'. Religious maniacs and the like, that is. But the claim of those who would have us write better, grander, more involving, more marketable (ahem, and yes, that's what it boils down to with just about all of these folks, who would like to make you believe that this is the way to, especially, 'sell to Hollywood') stories and is that the way to do this is to wring the last bit of juice out of the mythical mythic energy lurking inside of us.
The depth of the connection between most people and this kind or archetypal symbology is real enough, but I also think it's too...'subtle', I guess is the word...to make it carry the kind of emotional bandwidth it's being used for. I'm using that terminology on purpose, because I think it is a matter of 'bandwidth'—in the head, and I mean physically speaking; neurologically; associatively; at whatever level of cognitive metaphor you care to use. While everyone would like to be a hero—yes, even you, who claim not to!—few appreciate, emotionally and intellectually, what it means to be a 'hero', mythologically and archetypically speaking. And without that appreciation, understanding, connection, the message just doesn't come through.
The cognitively immediate is a much broader and robust channel for the transmission of emotional power. A sharp knife cutting someone is far more potent an image than the same person dying from a sci-fi ray-gun blast. The tragedy of a loved one or friend falling to the deeds of an adversary is infinitely more easily related to than a need to save the world from destruction—and if the latter is to work at all, it must first be made clear the 'world' destroyed also means the demise of everyone and everything you hold dear; else, who actually cares? Nobody really wants to save the world itself, because that's far too big and therefore too abstract. They do, however, want to save those in the world that matter to them. Hence the need to save the whole shebang.
The stakes that matter, in other words, are things that are close to us, in terms of our personal experience. The more we have to think about them, explicitly or somewhere 'deep down', the less immediate they will be.
As a story-teller who likes—'needs' actually—to experience, if you will, the progress of his own narrative and who needs to be convinced that whatever happens in it actually matters, I need to establish the stakes. For they don't just drop into your lap. Nor can they be obtained from some pat list of 'stakes that matter'. Of course, the list may well contain the requisite element—but it's still just a list. I couldn't just sit down and write 'This is a story about a mother needs to choose between saving one of her two children.' Ahh, yes, the tragedy. Poor mum. Terrible choice. Sod whoever or whatever fate out her into that position. Poor kids for that matter. But, let's face it, until we have been placed into a position where we identify emotionally with that woman's terrible choice—until the stakes become as high, or sufficiently so, for us as they are for her, we have no connection with the tale.
In a similar manner I have to write myself into a situation where my connection with the people of the story is close enough—until there is some significant emotional bandwidth between the part of me that constructs the tale and that which experiences it—so that I care for them as I would for a real person. Maybe more. Actually probably more than I would for the average 'acquaintance'. After all, these people are in my head. They are of me and yet they are different. About as schiz as you can get.
Something else about 'stakes' in narrative and why I suspect that a lot of this 'mythology' and 'deep meaning' business may be mostly a lot of hot air. I think that a lot of what narrative 'stakes' are supposed to supply us with, or remind us of, or make visible to us, are the stakes that really matter and that have 'emotional' power, but which we tend to forget in the everydayness of life and, especially today and in the world of 'civilization', where we are bombarded with an avalanche of substitute, inauthentic and emotionally contrived 'stakes', that aren't reall 'stakes' at all but, well, bullshit. This is of course a very existentialist view, though not necessarily an absurdist one. Anybody wanting to have a closer look at this whole issue is advised to read the books of Colin Wilson and especially his Outsider.
And so a story isn't necessarily enhanced by making the 'stakes' bigger and more dire and more important and more global and more meaningful and yadayadayada. It's done by making them more immediate and connected. If along the way the world—whatever word—get saved, that's cool and makes for a nice background. But by and large it isn't what matters. If it were, I'd soon get bored writing stories. But I don't. Which is good, because I really like doing it. I pity those—even if 'those' are more 'successful' than I with their work—who regard it in any way as a 'chore'.