Things get tense for your characters.
One of the most common mistakes newbie writers make is never raising the stakes in their screenplays. Whether it’s a TV pilot or a feature film, they’ll simply present a problem and show the characters work to solve it. But it always feels like something huge is missing.
What is missing are the increasingly high stakes. This can happen as part of character development and with additional conflicts.
Today I want to talk about “issues” with you. We’ll go over what they are, how to breed them, and look at some fun examples.
It sounds good ? Let’s go!
What are the stakes of the scenario?
When you write a scene, it should be filled with conflict.
The stakes refer to what is in danger if the character fails to overcome this conflict. For example, let’s say your character is climbing a high grade cliff and their rope breaks. Thus, they are left hanging. The conflict is the breaking of the rope and the struggle to reach the top, and the challenges are life and death.
What mistakes do new writers make?
As I said above, new writers set the stakes but often forget to raise them. What I mean by that is that they create a situation that has stakes, but the stakes never rise. Think about our previous idea of climbing a cliff and breaking the rope. The stakes are life and death.
But to raise them, what did I tell you that if you fall, you’ll fall into a pond full of babies? And if you come across those babies, not only will you die, but all those babies will die too.
Now the stakes are even higher for you to reach the top of that cliff safely.
So how can you raise the stakes in your own work?
How can you up the ante in your screenplay?
It all comes down to conflict. The more conflicts you have, the more your character has to lose. When you develop a character, you build the goals of what they want into a story. This is their character motivation. To raise the stakes, you need more conflict between them and what motivates them to achieve their goal.
The more the characters have to lose as a result of this conflict, the higher the stakes. When the stakes are high, the audience becomes more invested in the story. This is what makes them slide to the edge of their seat. It’s what drives people to engage with your story.
Let’s see some examples of professional writers and directors upping the ante in some of your favorite movies.
Some examples of raising participation in the scenarios
One of the greatest movies of all time is die hard. I think he has perhaps the best examples of increasing stakes to date. The film begins with John McClane there to save his marriage. These are issues. Then terrorists show up, and it’s McClane in a fight to the death as he escapes them. Then they take his wife, and it’s also his life that’s at stake. Then he learns that they’re planning to blow up the building, and it’s everyone’s life that’s at stake.
This continued rise in the stakes is making things increasingly difficult for McClane. We love this protagonist more and more as we see him fight conflict after conflict to save the day.
Another example would come in comedy. One of my favorites is the movie super bad. It’s clear early in the movie that what’s at stake is these two guys getting fucked. But as the night wears on, the stakes become more real, with arrest on the table and then even their true friendship hanging over everything.
It’s not life or death, but it raises the stakes to a level where it feels like it’s real. You don’t want their friendship to end. And when it weighs precariously on everything, you root them to reconcile.
Raise the stakes
As you can see, the stakes are extremely high for storytelling. The more you can raise them, the more the audience digs and enjoys the story with you. Raising the stakes can also help you decide which story twists you want. The more you do this, the better you get at it. And the more you can do this, the more professional your writing will become.
Let me know what you think of the increased stakes in the comments.