(SPOILERS: The Proposal, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Almost Famous)
One of the most critical things you must do in a story is establish what’s at stake for the character. What happens if the main character succeeds or fails? The more the character has at stake, the more dramatic and exciting the story. Conversely, if the outcome of the story isn’t going to affect the character, then why does the audience care? Today I want to dig into how we use stakes in screenwriting.
“Raise the stakes” is one of the most common notes a writer will be given. I think this is partly because it’s never a bad note (at worst it’s unnecessary) so if someone doesn’t have anything productive to add, they can throw out, “Raise the stakes” and not sound like an idiot.
However people often misunderstand the nature of stakes. They suggest a writer raise the stakes by increasing the size of what’s at stake. Rather than trying to get one million dollars, the character should be trying to get ten million dollars. But that’s often the wrong approach.
A con man might be trying to scam someone out of one million dollars so he can retire. That’s what’s at stake – he wants to quit his life of crime and live a life of luxury. You could make the scam for ten million dollars, but does that really raise the stakes? The outcome in question is still the same: can the con man retire?
But what if the con man owed a million dollars to some very bad mobsters? If he doesn’t come up with the money, they’ll kill him. We just raised the stakes without changing the amount of money. Now what’s at stake isn’t retirement, it’s life and death.
The key to raising the stakes dramatically is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation. We care about the story only as much as the character does. The more important it is to the character, the more important it will be to us. So to raise the stakes, make them more personal to the character.
Making the stakes of the story life and death may not be the best solution, though. It depends on the thematic content of the story. If you were writing a romantic comedy like The Proposal (written by Pete Chiarelli), the theme is love. So the stakes should be true love, not life and death. You want the highest stakes for the type of story you’re writing.
Stakes come in both positive and negative flavors. Many of the best stories have both. The character gets something good if they succeed and they suffer something bad if they fail. This gives the audience something to hope for and something to fear. In The Proposal, if Margaret fails she will be deported and lose her job. And if she succeeds she will find love and happiness.
The Proposal starts by establishing the negative stakes. This is the catalyst for the story: Margaret must get married so she can stay in the country and keep her job. Later, she falls for Andrew and the positive stakes appear. Ultimately the positive stakes become more important than the negative.
The positive stakes in The Proposal start to coalesce in the middle of the movie. Often we raise the stakes around the midpoint. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Matison), Elliot’s brother notices that E.T. is looking ill just after the midpoint. The stakes are raised – before they were just trying to protect E.T. Now they have to save his life.
In 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 in the middle of the movie 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. Each option, success and failure, is spelled out. William will either launch his dream career with a bang, or he will give up his dream and go to law school.
In order for stakes to be effective, you need to trap your character in the story. If the character can just walk away when things get tough, or try again later if he fails, then the stakes aren’t really at stake. 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 quits you can bet there won’t be any more offers to write for Rolling Stone.
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 the consequences of failure. In The Proposal, once Margaret and Andrew claim to an immigration official that they are engaged, the consequences of failure become real.
Finally, make sure the audience understands the stakes. Paint the picture – if this doesn’t work out for the character what will their life be like? It should be a pretty bleak future. And what will life be like if they succeed? It should satisfy the character’s greatest dreams.
Big stakes mean big drama.