I've been advised by several people not to see SHUTTER ISLAND. It's apparently got such disturbing, graphic scenes that it would stick with me far too long to make it worth it. I'm cool with that. I'm not a film buff. I don't have to see every film that comes along just because the media tells me I should, as it's far from my favorite way to experience story. This, btw, is not a commentary on a film I've not seen, so you don't have to get all defensive on SHUTTER ISLAND's behalf. I might at some point read the book because I thought the story sounds interesting, and yeah, I read enough about the film to know who Teddy really is.
But it's gotten me to thinking about shock value verses stakes in a story. One of my problems with film today is that it seems to rely to much on shock value to raise stakes rather than the main character. Stakes are a much subtler thing to develop and they rely on the reader imprinting on the main character to make it worth it. At that point you're golden. After that, you're free to make the obstacles serve story and character. And I've found it's essential to me to make obstacles specific to that character: that victims and losses are based on the personal relationships and fears of that particular character. I mean, it really only means something to Trinidad when Castile combats his faith via Wiccan magic. Other people could choose to not believe, or they could integrate their beliefs. But for Trinidad, who has built Christianity around him like a wall to shield him from hurts based in his Wiccan upbringing, this revelation is one of his worst nightmares. Without that wall to protect him, his whole world starts to crumble.
In the book I mentioned, THE SPIRIT LENS, her baddie does some bad things to Portier. Not shocking, though it could have gotten worse and the author was certainly leading the reader down that path. But bad on several levels: it served as an obstacle, it served as one of Portier's greatest fears, it served to show how determined our antagonist is. He is out for blood and it's personal to him. It made it abruptly personal for Portier, too. The baddie knows who he is and worse, has use for him. (Incidentally, it happened at about the midpoint of the book, that No Turning Back Moment.) Portier didn't really need one to stick around, but now he's stuck in the middle of this mess -- the baddie knows exactly who he is -- and his only way out is to take charge and solve his mystery.
These things can be illustrated in a myriad of ways. The absolute most important thing is the impact the stakes have on the main character. That doesn't require shock value. It doesn't even require a lot of internal narrative. It requires well-drawn characters with definite goals and an antagonist who is not necessarily bad, but mostly determined to make them walk the other way.
How do you link obstacles, stakes, and character in your stories?