Michaeline: When Stakes Just Aren’t Important

One of the things we’re taught as studious craft writers is that the stakes are important. Stakes, well-defined at the outset and referred to as needed during the course of story, can keep the reader reading, eager to see if (or more likely, in the romance genre, how) our characters get their hearts’ desires.

But this week, I binge-watched season one of BBC’s Ghosts, and now I’m wondering if high stakes are actually a distraction from a cozy story.

Alison (white woman) and Mike (Black man) sit on the floor during a DIY tea break, while ghosts come out the wall. GHOSTS is emblazoned on the wall.
Promotional image of BBC’s 2019 comedy, Ghosts, via BBC Media Centre.

Ghosts starts with the death of an old lady, and a will (a will! Like I talked about in April), or rather no will and no children, just a call from a lawyer acting as executor, and a large haunted manor goes to a distant relative – Alison, a young married woman inherits the home, and doesn’t even have to feel sorry for the unknown dead aunt.

The home is a disaster, though, and crumbling. Still, Alison and her husband Mike decide to take on the place, DIY it up and turn it into a hotel. We, the viewers, know the house is haunted . . . haunted right up to the gills with people from the prehistoric man who grunts with quite a lot of intelligence, to Julian, a member of parliament (MP) from the 1990s caught dead with his pants down.

The ghosts do not have a lot of goals except to preserve their quiet way of life. First, they decide to get rid of the intruders, and Julian takes the initiative by pushing Alison out the window. Alison survives! Don’t worry – this is a cozy creepy story! After a brief stay in the hospital, she goes home to discover that she can see these ghosts. Mike, in the meantime, has managed to embroil them deeper in home ownership while she was in the hospital – if they leave, they will be completely bankrupt. If they stay . . . well, hope flutters like pigeon’s wings that they can create a bed and breakfast then hotel and live a nice life.

Goals, stakes . . . these are spelled out, but they don’t make the story that interesting. They just provide excuses to keep everyone there in the house. The humor is in the comedy of manners that results as Alison has to deal with the prehistoric man, a young servant burnt at the stake, Lord Humphrey’s head and his wandering body, a virginal late 1700s Black lady, a Regency poet, a prudish Victorian woman, a captain from World War I (I think), a scout master with an arrow through his neck and Julian the MP. Oh, and several more ghosts who don’t seem to leave the pantry or the basement much.

The characters are interesting enough, and their relationships with each other are so established and long-lasting (for the ghosts) that it’s like falling into the middle of a soap opera. You don’t know all the details, but you easily catch up enough to love the story.

Alison and Mike stick to their goals: work towards opening up a hotel. The ghosts change their goals on a whim . . . being eternal beings, I suppose they get bored. They soon decide to allow Alison and Mike to stay, they ally with them, and then work against them as the plot meanders through the construction themes.  

The world-building also plays a huge role in the story. These ghosts exist – one can be heard by humans (the creepy girl in the pantry who sings “Ring a Ring of Roses”); Robin, despite being the oldest, can make electric lights flicker; and Julian can push things around slightly.

The others have a lot of knowledge to share once Alison can hear them. The ghosts in the basement help fix the boiler, and Lady Fanny Button is a fount of Victorian manners when it’s time to give a dinner party. Julian knows all the gossip from his era, which is still surprisingly relevant in 2020.

In a way, this reminds me of one of my favorite stories, the Penric novellas by Lois McMaster Bujold. In those stories, Penric is inhabited by a demon with the memories of 11 women and a lion and a mare (if I remember correctly) and benefits from their secret store of knowledge.

Alison also benefits from her ghosts, and Mike soon became a believer (after seeing Julian type on his computer). This isn’t one of those silly stories where the husband pooh-poohs the wife’s powers. This is a silly story where the husband and wife have a loving relationship and know each other well.

I was so pleased by the story, I’m going to order the DVD set of season one and season two.

The very nice thing about BBC TV shows is that they generally have few episodes compared to the US model of 22 per season. Season one of Ghosts is six half-hour episodes, which makes nice viewing for a rainy afternoon – or even a cozy evening. You won’t go to bed with nightmares with this one. It’s worth watching once for the fun, and watching again to analyze how they made such an entertaining story.

P.S. There’s a new Penric novella coming out — and it’s a novel!! It should drop any time now. See Lois’s Goodreads blog and the next entry (and comments) for more details about The Assassins of Thasalon.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: When Stakes Just Aren’t Important

  1. This sounds like a lot of fun! I’m going to check it out. Speaking of short episodes, I just finished “Dropping the Soap,” which is about the backstage shenanigans of the actors in a televised soap opera, and not surprisingly, the characters’ real lives almost dwarf the on-scene action. Jane Lynch is the big name attached; she plays this delightfully evil boss as only she can, and each episode is about 10 minutes. There are six or eight episodes, I think. Really a hoot if you’re looking for something short and funny. Although this one, now that you mention it, has stakes.

    But really, who needs ’em if the storytelling hits your sweet spot?

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