1. You have hit the nail on the head about why I love fantasy: the supernatural is visible, and the stakes are high. I had figured out about the supernatural part, but not the high stakes. Thank you so much for the insight!!

    • I have to credit Bryan Davis for helping me figure it out! I’ve gotten the supernatural part for a long time, too. Now if I can just translate the high-stakes concept into my daily priorities, this insight might actually affect my life and not just my reading …

  2. […] (First, an announcement: I’ve signed on as a regular contributor to the newly revamped Speculative Faith blog, along with Becky Miller and Stephen Burnett and Stuart Stockton. My first post, “The Stakes Are High,” is up today. Check it out.) […]

  3. Ken Rolph says:

    This seems to suggest that the supernatural is necessarily part of speculative fiction. I wonder if that is true.

    • Ken, that’s a good point. In sci-fi, it probably isn’t. In fantasy, some form of the supernatural is almost always present, whether it’s in the form of “magic” or the presence of god-like beings. Horror typically also involves something supernatural, but I confess, horror is outside of my reading and thus outside the realm of me knowing what I’m talking about ;).

      • Ken Rolph says:

        I hope that “almost always” leaves me some wiggle room. Most of the writers of my generation, who started in the sixties in Australia, have in their bottom drawer an epic with elves and swarves and magic rings. I determined not to do that. I am also interested in the fact that most writers who create alternative worlds do so without having mobile phones in them. They mostly go medieval or ancient in their ideas. Somehow related to the fact that in NSW the number of students studying ancient history is much larger than the number studying modern history. There are various ways of not coping with the modern world.

        That’s a very compressed argument. I think it may be possible to create an alternate world where the idea of the supernatural is present, but there is no actual supernatural. An example of this is the movie The 13th Warrior. The people believe in supernatural things, but they have a natural basis. It’s pre-scientific. The film is based on a novel by Michael Crichton, which as I recall is titled Eaters of the Dead. Can’t lay my hand on the copy at present.

        Since mobile phone networks were introduced the number of ghost reportings has dropped steeply. It seems that mobys occupy the same electromagnetic frequency that the ghosts used to use. Nowadays if you get chills and a creepy feeling, it is likely spammers trying to make money out of you.

        It can be difficult for a writer of a rational outlook to cope with the fact that many people believe in irrational things. Not just in a symbolic manner, but as actualities. Many Christians understand that the ways of God may be beyond our understanding. But this push beyond this to the idea that anything irrational is necessarily spiritual, and that anything rational is necessarily unspiritual.

        I am not able to write about the supernatural with any conviction. So if I create an alternate world it would contain people who are just like us but ina different way, if that makes sense.

  4. Rachel, great post. I’ve known about the need for high stakes via Donald Maass, but I hadn’t associated the kind of high stakes you mention particularly with fantasy. After reading your post, I think it clearly is a part of the motif. So yes, that worlds are at stake heightens the tension and makes me care a great deal more.

    The important thing, though, is to make the high stakes believable and the possibility of failure real. Those might be harder to pull off.


  5. Great to have you here, Rachel. You’ve immediately jumped into the deep end, and I’m loving it. As you portrayed, one thing that God-honoring speculative stories have in common with Scripture is the higher “stakes.” Other genres, certainly including romance but also even catch-the-killer mysteries, have their points, but the stakes aren’t as high.

    The important thing, though, is to make the high stakes believable and the possibility of failure real. Those might be harder to pull off.

    This leads me to ask — and attempt to answer partially — what could be the difficulties in pulling this off. A simple answer might be that a reader must come to care for the world that’s put in jeopardy. One cannot open a novel, see the map, check out the list of species, make a copy of the map and the back-of-the-book glossary of terms for future reference, etc., and then on page 2 find out that this world is in jeopardy — and be expected to care. Readers must see themselves, and their worlds, in this imagined world.

    That’s why the threat to Middle-earth, for example, seems so terrible and even personal. We don’t start in a world where everything is weird and otherwordly. Rather, the Shire and its culture, evocative of our own medieval heritage and of a simpler, innocent and idealistic life, strikes as as worth preserving — and any threat to it all the more evil.

    Other books seem not to understand that. No one else can be Tolkien, of course, but even if someone outdid the professor in forming a created-world, with histories and songs and a language and legendarium, it would not work without the emotional connection to the real world. A created-world and its characters must gain the reader’s trust. Even with all the parts put together it must still have an emotional appeal, a spark of life that touches the reader’s own humanity and heart response.

    Yet even books that don’t aspire to be Lord of the Rings, which instead have smaller goals, just don’t manage this. You named one author whose style didn’t seem to grab you, Rachel; I can think of another (he’s on our Recommended Author list!) who has gained acclaim, but his style doesn’t seem to grab me either. Many of his books lean toward the whole the-church-doesn’t-get-it, supernatural-experience-based side of things, and whether because of that or not, the stories are written in a way that can perhaps best be described as “hyper-compressed epic.” They’re either too big or not big enough.

    Those are other factors that make high stakes believable, and the possibility of failure real. That leads me to wonder what else a writer can do to make “high stakes” feel real. …

    • You know, I think it says something powerful about how well Tolkien helped his readers connect with Middle-Earth that even though the epic ends “happily,” most Tolkien fans still feel sorrow and bittersweetness over the changes coming to that world — the leaving of the elves, the dawning of a new age, the end of an old one.

      As for the deep end, I’m not sure I know how to jump in anywhere else!

    • Rachel, that’s exactly a theme presented by Justin Taylor (blogger extraordinaire, one of rare “New Reformed” guys who talks about fiction!) just last week:

      Ralph C. Wood is commenting here on The Lord of the Rings, but this is also a pretty good description of the quintessential Christian demeanor in a post-Fall, pre-glory, already/not-yet age:

      Treebeard possesses what might well be called the essential Tolkienian demeanor—a fundamental somberness about the world’s state, yet with an overriding joy that cannot be quenched:

      “Pippin could see a sad look in his eyes, sad but not unhappy ([2.90; my emphasis).

      The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth (Louisvile, WJK: 2003), 18.

      The Apostle Paul put it this way:

      “We are . . . sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

      —2 Cor. 6:10

      Amen — and apparently author and pastor Tim Keller stopped by to comment on that seeming paradox.

      I wonder how other Christ-honoring authors can capture this in their stories?

What do you think?