Scope, Scale, & Stakes in Genres: Detective Noir

I wrote about Scope, Scale, and Stakes recently, but I didn’t give clear examples of how they shift during the course of a story. I’ll try to give a more concrete account of that here, with a focus on one particular kind of story or genre.

Let’s try the genre of detective noir.

First, a refresher:

  • Scale: “the level at which protagonists are interacting with the world, and the results of their actions upon it.”
  • Scope: “what the protagonists can see,” meaning the boundaries of their awareness or the perceived importance of their actions.
  • Stakes: whatever is in jeopardy / at risk, or to be gained by a course of action.

A detective noir story begins with the protagonist hired by someone to investigate a case. The scale is prosaic: this is just another job to put food on the table and/or to feed the protagonist’s genre-mandated questionable habits. The scope is narrow: this job doesn’t yet tie into anything else important and probably seems mundane, no matter how sordid it may be. The stakes are low and impersonal (for our protagonist): there’s little at risk, the protagonist isn’t threatened, and there isn’t much to be gained beyond petty cash.

Stepping back for a moment… if none of those things established above changed, we’d probably have a pretty boring story on our hands. I’m sure someone could do that and make it exciting, but it’d be a feat. Also, if those things didn’t change, it’d be hard to argue that it truly belonged in the detective noir genre. So what comes next?

The story introduces some complications, and the clues our protagonist uncovers are a confusing and unpleasant mess. The scale remains prosaic: the protagonist isn’t yet empowered to make momentous decisions. The scope broadens slightly: the clues suggest there’s something bigger going on here, and this investigation has brought our protagonist into contact with it. The stakes are slightly higher and more personal: the story’s complications probably include a menacing sense of threat, an awareness of being followed, a connection to our protagonist’s questionable past, or something similar.

If we were writing this genre piece, we’d probably have some idea of how things turn sideways and how they tie together into something bigger. That’s our view of the actual scope of the story, rather than the visible scope. The writer’s understanding of the story’s actual scope is much broader than the protagonist’s (or the audience’s); the actual scope encompasses all the dirty details of the conspiracy or crime our protagonist is investigating. The protagonist’s visible scope is still constricted to the bits and pieces in front of them. It won’t expand fully until they finish putting the details together. According to classic genre expectations, the audience’s visible scope will match the story’s actual scope just after the protagonist makes their final connections / acts on their understanding of their broadened visible scope. That discrepancy between the audience’s visible scope and the story’s actual scope is something noir genre writers are often expected to play with. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, because…

Next, the story’s complications take a more threatening turn and the puzzle pieces begin to fit together. The scale expands, encompassing both the prosaic and the regional: the protagonist still has their own skin in the game, but their actions now effect a larger number of people beyond their immediate circle. The scope widens again: the protagonist (and the audience) are assembling the clues available to them and uncovering the bigger picture underneath the surface level secrets and lies; this is where the protagonist becomes certain that what they’re digging into is larger than themselves. There may be some drama around that size disparity. The stakes continue to rise and (often) grow more personal: lingering menace becomes actual peril, perhaps an assassination attempt or kidnapping or something similar; meanwhile, the wider visible scope shows that the prosaic stakes of the original investigation are accompanied by much larger concerns.

Here comes the climax.

The story comes to a head. The threats culminate, the protagonist sees the full scope of the badness they face, and they must make decisions and weather the consequences. The scale is (usually) both prosaic and large: the protagonist may fight for their life, but they’re also fighting for the fate of people or communities around them. The scope widens “completely”: the protagonist and audience are now able to see all of the issues they (and the people around them) face, and they know the full weight of their decisions; some of the actual scope may be temporarily withheld, if the protagonist’s incorrect deductions play a part in the climax or denouement or if sequels are in order. The stakes peak: all the previous elements which had been at risk are now in jeopardy; note, if the scale is large and the visible scope especially broad, the personal stakes may be overlooked in the climax and dwelled on in the denouement.

And then we have the resolution.

The climax has run its course. The protagonist suffers whatever fallout may come their way. In the resolution, the scale is prosaic again: the protagonist (or their survivors) does the best they can to put their life back in order; their actions no longer determine the fate of anything but their immediate surroundings. The scope narrows considerably: while they can’t forget what they learned, the protagonist generally loses access to whatever information or special insight kept them up to date on the larger or deeper world around them. They know that their actions are only effecting themselves again. The stakes contract, and are more personal: now only the protagonist’s own livelihood and personal connections are at risk; the contrast between the climax and denouement may be jarring, a juxtaposition often played with intentionally. This may be when the protagonist learns about all the damage they did to the rest of their life while they focused entirely on their investigation. It’s also very in-genre to have a protagonist do admirable things and succeed in the climax, only to screw their life up in the denouement.

I hope that rough outline offers an easy-to-follow exploration of the expansion and contraction of scale, scope, and stakes in a particular genre story. You might be able to do something like this for a variety of different genres, exploring to what extent these patterns vary between genres. I suspect that some genres put more weight in these patterns than others.

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