Storytelling — Philosophical Stakes

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Narrativium

Via the latest issue of Simon de la Rouviere’s excellent Scenes with Simon newsletter, I found a video on good endings by Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, that basically answers the question I explored in Just Add Dinosaurs, where I argued that Matthew Dicks’ approach to analyzing stories in terms of stakes falls short because it leads to obviously ridiculous (to me) conclusions like “Jurassic Park is about Alan Grant’s relationship with children rather than dinosaurs.” In Dicks’ model, the dinosaurs are “just” stakes. In a treatment that’s in other ways very similar to Dicks’, Arndt unbundles the idea of stakes into three kinds: internal, external, and philosophical. He argues that the difference between good and great endings lies in some sort of moral inversion around the philosophical stakes (which not all stories have), and that these stakes in fact constitute the meaning of the story. Without these philosophical stakes, other bits feel mechanical.

In these terms, it’s easy to see what is actually going on with Jurassic Park:

  • Internal stakes: Alan Grant’s relationship with children is flipped
  • External stakes: Hammond’s dangerous scheme of starting a dinosaur theme park is thwarted
  • Philosophical stakes: A world with live dinosaurs is shown to be cooler than one with just fossils

This point is subtly made in the original, with the climactic battle being raptors vs T-Rex, rather than humans vs. T-Rex, and with the ominous shot of the Barbasol can. But it’s in your face with the series arc finale. By Jurassic World: Dominion, we’re just living in a world where dinosaurs in the wild is normal, and the theme park villain is trying to weaponize them. The philosophical stakes are now trying to save the cool world.

So yes, my first naive instinct was correct. Jurassic Park is about dinosaurs. Why does an accomplished, champion storyteller miss this point that’s obvious to any narrative-illiterate 8-year-old?

I think it’s because Dicks specializes in telling personal stories from his own real life. In fact it’s a rule of his that’s the only kind you’re allowed to tell in the oral tradition his book is about. You’re not even allowed to tell someone else’s story. So while his theories may be sound for that narrow scope, Jurassic Park doesn’t actually belong in the reference set.

Personal stories are of course very meaningful to those who live them, but let’s be honest: Most have zero philosophical stakes. They may be entertaining yarns with fun external stakes and modest internal stakes, but the nature of reality and the moral dimension of the universe aren’t involved.

This also explains why personal stories mostly bore me. Even my own. If there are no philosophical stakes, I’m not interested. If there are good philosophical stakes, I’m actually fine without either internal or external stakes.

Philosophical stakes are a neat lens. They explain many puzzles. For example the original Toby Maguire Spider-Man worked much better than the Amazing Spider-Man because the philosophical stakes (“with great power comes great responsibility”) are front and center in the former and basically missing in the latter. They‘re front-and-center again in the Tom Holland reboot (“be friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, not Avengers member with all the status and perks and famous friends”). You know it’s the right decision because Tony Stark gives him the fancy suit anyway. The Friendly Neighborhood stakes are apparent in the sequels as well. Even if Holland Spider-Man is fighting cosmic battles in the multiverse, he’s always fighting for friendly neighborhood stakes over Nick Fury stakes. He’s never going to want to be a god even if he has the required abilities (in contrast to Hawkeye who plays cosmic god hero without quite having what it takes, often neglecting his friendly-neighborhood scale life to do so).

Series Navigation<< Storytelling — Just Add Dinosaurs

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. I think it’s because Dicks specializes in telling personal stories from his own real life.

    Don’t know about him, but there is also an enlightenment arc: all the gods, demons and heroes are just humans with psychological traits and limitations. Decoding dinosaurs as infantile fascination, desire and drive seems quite apt. When you compress the whole mythic cosmos of the the ancient mediterranean into a family chronicle, you get much of the Hebrew bible. The gain is enigmatic people, psychological complexity and lots of neuroticism to cure for centuries and even millennia to come. Converting mythology into psychology has been the primary reduction. The price you might pay: you become one of the dimwitted philistines which populate the fantastic literature e.g. in H.P.Lovecraft of A.Machen or Inspector Lestrade rather that Sherlock Holmes. That’s not for everyone either.

  2. Peter Woodward says

    Melanie Anne Phillips argues the ideal ending would be Grant changing from loving order to embracing chaos. He has been set up as an order character through hating children, the chopper disrupting his dig, etc. A fitting climax would result from his making a crucial decision towards the side of chaos, a la Ian Malcolm. In this way the tale becomes a story by showing chaos is the ‘only’ way to solve the conflict. As it is, the ending shows chaos as ‘a’ way to solve the conflict. Thus JP’s ending lacks maximal story cohesion.

    • That’s a great point. I’d like to watch a version with a chaos-pilled Grant. I like this idea:

      “Just as before, the Raptors break in, the humans escape onto the dino skeletons. NOW, when T-Rex comes in to save the day, it is solely because of Dr. Grant’s decision to cut the power to the fence that was holding him in. Having learned his lesson about the benefits of Chaos and the folly of Order, he is a changed man. The author’s proof of this correct decision is their salvation courtesy of T-Rex.”

      This sort of thing is often how Godzilla saves the day in Godzilla movies.

  3. What a delightful find.

    Two things helpful to me that explore the realm of “philosophical stakes” (though this is the first time I’ve heard it put that way):

    1) The Incremental Perturbation essay by John Barth:
    (“Many an apprentice piece hopefully substitutes the sonority of closure, for example, for real denouement; the thing sounds finished, but something tells us – a kind of critical bookkeeping developed maybe not more than half-consciously for our lifetime experience of stories – that its dramaturgical bills haven’t been paid.”)

    2) The book A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders – a blow-by-blow of how those Russians make all that meaning in a few short pages.

  4. E.M. Baker says

    It’s interesting to consider whether narrative stakes can’t be represented as elements of a narratological vector space. Much of the modern work on semantics and semiotics struggles to introduce a notion of rank that smoothly scales to sentences, paragraphs, scenes etc and there’s been some work to see if higher categories can be better applied to it, so why not for both environments?
    I’ve just tried a couple toy models on pen and paper with just an internal, external and philosophical axis and I think it’s hard to distinguish between local and global stakes. Linguistics isn’t my wheelhouse, though.

  5. i think too many words, about ourselves, comes in the way of grokking ourselves

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