Monday, October 26, 2009

What Have I Got to Lose?

(Spoilers: Almost Famous)

We often talk about “raising the stakes” in a movie. By which we mean increasing what’s at stake for the character in the story. There can and should be both positive and negative stakes. I phrase this as “hope and fear.” What is the audience hoping will happen? What do they fear might happen?

Sometimes I’ll see a story where there’s only positive stakes. The character wants to win the race or get the pretty girl to go out with him. The reasons are fairly obvious. But what happens if they fail? If failure simply means they move on to the next race or the next girl then there really isn’t that much at stake is there?

It’s important to create a significant penalty for failure in your story. Paint the picture for the audience – if this doesn’t work out for the character what will their life be like? It should be a pretty bleak future.

Sometimes that’s easy. In Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) if John McClane fails to stop the terrorists people die (and the stakes are raised because one of those people is his wife). No problem there. But not every premise has such clear-cut dangers built in.

One of my favorite movies is Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). The hero, William, wants to be a rock and roll journalist. As a high school student he gets a fantastic opportunity to write a piece for Rolling Stone – the biggest rock magazine there is. And those stakes are raised when he’s told they’re considering the story for the cover.

Great, those are high positive stakes: if William can get the story he will achieve his dream.

But what if he doesn’t get the story? If he simply feels bad for a few hours and then starts right in on the next big magazine assignment then the movie wouldn’t feel urgent or important.

So in Almost Famous we’re led to believe that failure to get the story means William will never become a rock journalist. The world of rock journalism is pretty small, after all, and this is portrayed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One way or another this story will give him a reputation. Moreover, his mother does not really support his dream. She’s giving him this chance but when it’s over she expects him to go off to college and pursue a normal career.

In short, this is a test. Does William have what it takes to be a real journalist? The answer will determine the direction of his life. A negative answer may mean abandoning his dreams forever.

That’s quite a lot to lose!

Usually the place to look to create negative stakes is in your character conception. If William were a grizzled, long time rock journalist pursuing his fifteenth Rolling Stone cover story then the movie wouldn’t be that interesting. It’s crucial that he’s a young high school kid desperate for a break. That what makes the story a life changing opportunity instead of just another gig.

(There’s a saying in the film business: your story should be about the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to the character. Because you’re probably only going to get to tell one story about this character so why would you tell the second most interesting story? And since Almost Famous is loosely auto-biographical, I would bet it was based on the most interesting thing that had happened to Cameron Crowe up to that point.)

Related to negative stakes is the need to trap your character in the story. If the character can just walk away when things get tough then the story doesn’t seem all that important.

In Almost Famous William is going on tour with a band and is expected to deliver a feature article to Rolling Stone by a certain deadline. If he walks away you can bet there won’t be any more offers to write for Rolling Stone. When he accepts the assignment he’s locked into the journey. Success or failure will come one way or another.

Sometimes people refer to the end of Act I as the “point of no return.” That act break is when the character commits fully to the story. And often this also means accepting negative consequences to failure.

In Almost Famous William gets a small assignment to write a concert review for Cream in the middle of Act I. But it’s an entry-level gig. The kind of opportunity that will come around again. When he accepts the assignment for Rolling Stone at the end of Act I he’s putting himself in a make-it or break-it situation for his career.

And we fear what will happen if William can’t deliver.

Hope and fear are what make the audience engage with the story. So yes, raise the stakes. Just make sure the consequences of failure are as significant as those of success.

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