(Spoilers: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure)
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?
But raising the stakes isn’t just about increasing the size of what’s at stake.
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.
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.
I recently watched the classic eighties comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (written by Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon). It provides a great demonstrates of the nuances of using stakes. In the story, Bill and Ted are in danger of failing history class if they don’t ace their final presentation. If Ted fails, his father will send him off to military school.
The biggest stakes in terms of objective importance come from Rufus, the time traveler from the future. He is sent back to 1991 to ensure that Bill and Ted form the band that will ultimately bring peace and awesomeness to the world. These are pretty big stakes! But it’s not really the reason we care whether Bill and Ted pass their class.
No, the bigger stakes come from the threat to Bill and Ted’s friendship. We like these guys and we want them to stay together. More importantly, they want to stay together. Their biggest dream is to form a great rock band. That dream will be destroyed if Ted gets sent to military school, which means they have to pass their final project.
The audience hopes Bill and Ted succeed in their quest because that will make them happy. The audience’s way into the story is the characters. We care about their happiness. Sure, Bill and Ted think it’s cool they can create a future utopia, but that’s not what’s motivating them on their quest. And it’s not what we really care about either.
The bit about the future utopia is really only there to provide the mechanism for Bill and Ted’s time travel. It’s why Rufus brings them a time machine, not why we care about whether they pass their presentation final. Really, they could find another way to travel through time and the story wouldn’t change much.
The film does a good job spelling out both the character's excellent potential future: a life as rock stars who save the world – and their bogus potential future: military school and the end of Bill and Ted’s friendship. This gets the audience invested in the outcome of the adventure. And note that the dramatic question of the film – “Will Bill and Ted pass history?” – is relatively mundane and minor. It’s what the resolution of this question means to the characters that makes it significant.
Good stories connect the main character's internal journey to the external journey (the plot). In the case of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, this comes in the form of the characters' self-discipline. They want to create a great rock band, but they don't know how to play their instruments. They are as lazy as musicians as they are as students. But over the course of the movie, Ted comes to the realization that if they want to be great, they have to learn how to actually play. Thus the stakes in the external journey - passing history so Ted can avoid military school - dovetail with the stakes in the internal journey. If Ted doesn't have this realization, the band will never achieve greatness.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure may be just a dumb comedy, but it still has stakes that are the most important thing in the world to the characters. That’s why we engage with the story. Make sure the stakes of your story are equally important to your characters.
The Three Stages of Screenwriting
"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review