This is some advice I got somewhere along the way of learning how to write. I can’t really recall where I heard it first, but it may have been from Jon Lewis, who taught a screenwriting class at Oregon State. One of my favorite classes that really helped me gain an understanding of what it was that I wasn’t particularly good at. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me, but that class was during a formative time in my writing and he was very blunt with his criticism, which was refreshing. Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.
While the statement was about screenplays, the point translates to books, graphic novels, ketchup bottles, whatever.
The point is, that nobody pays (Well, a movie was like $6.50 back then…) $12 to see a movie about the second worst day of a guy’s life. I think it’s an incredibly cool way of saying something else.
Raise the stakes.
The stakes are whatever your character stands to lose if they don’t achieve their physical goal during the course of your story. Related to that is the level of challenge that the character faces as they try to achieve their goals. More about goals in another post, this one is more about what’s at stake and what opposes them.
In the movie Ghostbusters, let’s take a look at some of the stakes, some of the pressure that’s heaped on the protagonist, Dr. Venkman.
In it’s simplest terms, it’s a boy meets girl love story. Dr. Venkman falls in love with Dana Barrett, while he’s trying to get his startup company off the ground. There are some trials and tribulations along the way, but in the end he gets the girl. Simple, right? Now, told in the wrong way, without raising the stakes, the story wouldn’t be as interesting as it could be.
First, the Ghostbusters get kicked out of their cushy jobs at the University. They’re out of money after they buy the old fire station to use as their headquarters. They are smart, plucky, but they have no experience in busting ghosts, so they find it tough to continue on. Job prospects are slim, when along comes Dana Barrett. Venkman falls in love with her and they begin catching ghosts, business begins to boom and things seem to be going well. Then, the evil EPA man (wow, this really was the 1980s) releases all the ghosts that the guys have caught. New York is overrun with PK energy and the fate of the entire city is at stake. Dr. Venkman and the boys need to save the entire city, maybe even the world, from being overrun by ghosts, destroying the world as we know it.
Those are high stakes and plenty of people payed ($3.50 back then maybe?) to watch that movie.
What if the stakes hadn’t been so high? What if they only got yelled at by the Dean of the University? What if they still had tons of money when they started up? What if the instant Dana Barrett and Dr. Venkman meet, she’d fallen deeply in love with him? What if the evil EPA guy hadn’t released the ghosts? What if Gozer the Gozerian hadn’t come along in the form of a gigantic, killer marshmallow? Well, those stakes aren’t as high, the challenges aren’t as great and the movie, frankly, probably wouldn’t have been as good.
In the DNA of a good movie, there will always be threats to the chances of the protagonist’s success.
Same goes for nearly every movie or book that works. The stakes and the challenges are as high as they realistically can be.
The Bad News Bears aren’t just a below average team, they’re the worst little league team imaginable. Their coach isn’t just an average loser, he’s a complete and utter lush, barely able to keep his own life together, estranged from his family, battling depression to boot. While the stakes in Bad News Bears aren’t incredibly high (it’s not like these kids are playing to get into the World Series,) the Bears, along with Coach Buttermaker, are battling for their own sense of self worth. Those are very high stakes for the situation.
In Die Hard, John McLain is alone, barefoot, battling a small army of bank robbing terrorists who are highly trained and deadly.
In Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne has no memory of who he is, so literally anyone can be a threat. He’s fighting to regain his own sense of self, to find his…well…identity.
Like everything, I think there’s a line that you can cross where raising the stakes and raising the threat level is no longer good advice. You should drink a lot of water, right? You shouldn’t drink 10 gallons of water in an hour, you’ll get water poisoning and die.
So, you don’t want to raise the stakes so high that you make it ridiculous.
If you’re writing a story about a woman that wants to climb a mountain, the stakes need to be high. She must have loads of challenges that face her. The mountain must be technically very demanding, a savage and dangerous climb. Maybe she loses a foot, maybe she’s struggling with clinical depression over the loss of her mother, maybe she faces strong opposition from some government entity, maybe she can’t even scrape together the money to get to the mountain, maybe her house gets foreclosed on. There are a thousand maybes that can add to the drama.
Maybe there are aliens that will destroy the entire universe if she doesn’t make it up that hill.
Well, that certainly would raise the stakes, but it’s not on the spine of the story. It’s got no place in the world that this mountaineering story lives in. So, you can certainly raise the stakes too high, or at least too far off the point of the story.
I think another aspect of this is that humans usually want to resolve conflict. In our real lives, most of us don’t like to see conflict escalate. But when writing a novel, a screenplay, a short story – you need to embrace that conflict.
What if Batman and the Joker had sat down to work out their differences. Maybe the Joker could join a self help group to work through his issues. Maybe Batman could see a counselor to work through his issues too. Would you like to see that movie? Me neither.
So, in the novel I’m currently writing, I’m trying to find ways to raise the stakes. Is the fate of the planet at stake? Well, maybe, though that’s not really on the spine of the story. Is a man’s life at stake? Most definitely. Is the opposition strong, directed and incredibly threatening? In it’s rough form, it needs to have a lot added to it, but I’m getting there.
Without giving too much away, there was a point I got to where a decision had to be made. What the decision is, doesn’t really matter.
Take a hypothetical situation. Late one night, somebody knocks on your door. You open the door up. It’s one person. They say one thing.
What’s the worst it could be?
I’ve recently had to make a choice like that and got a big breakthrough by remembering to raise the stakes, to make it the worst possible outcome to a given action.
How can you raise the stakes in your story? What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? What are some movies or books that are similar to your story and how do they raise the stakes? How do they inject that drama that make them really work, make them jump off the page or the screen?
Anyway, I’ve rambled enough. What do you think, love it? Hate it? Gimme a shout of you found this interesting.