The Importance and Meaning of High Stakes in Screenwriting
It’s pretty simple. Story stakes answer the question…
“So what? Why should we care?”
High stakes can benefit the story in many ways, they:
- maintain audience investment.
- increase tension.
- give purpose to character’s actions.
- provide characters with something to play for.
However, characters are still often weak and the story can feel flat. One reason for this is because the writing lacks bravery.
For as we will find out, the creation of high stakes when writing a script takes courage of imagination.
“In Literature, only trouble is interesting.”
It’s ironic that humans should be so skilled at creating trouble in the real world, yet, when it comes to the fictional world, writers have a tendency to hold back and be on their best behaviour.
We are, of course, hardwired to avoid conflict. It’s a matter of survival.
Therefore, getting over this natural instinct to avoid generating conflict will take practice. Give yourself permission to enjoy the discovery of embracing your inner rascal.
Become the kid playing with a magnifying glass, standing over an ant hill. You have Kurt Vonnegut’s permission:
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Practice finding the stakes in the movies you watch from now on. You don’t have to look far. The stakes will be present in the controlling idea of the premise and logline of most great stories.
Let’s look at some IMDB loglines from five films where the stakes are very high:
THE TERMINATOR (1984)
In 1984, a human soldier is tasked to stop an indestructible cyborg killing machine, both sent from 2029, from executing a young woman, whose unborn son is the key to humanity’s future salvation.
A young police officer must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50mph.
CASINO ROYALE (2006)
After earning 00 status and a license to kill, Secret Agent James Bond sets out on his first mission as 007. Bond must defeat a private banker, funding terrorists, in a high-stakes game of poker at Casino Royale, Montenegro.
A dramatization of the July 20, 1944 assassination and political coup plot by desperate renegade German Army officers against Adolf Hitler during World War II.
April 6th, 1917. As a regiment assembles to wage war deep in enemy territory, two soldiers are assigned to race against time and deliver a message that will stop 1,600 men from walking straight into a deadly trap.
Finding Meaning in High-Stakes
Ask yourself these questions:
Questions of Importance:
- What’s the main story goal?
- What does the character want or need?
- Who or what stands in the way?
- What will the consequences be if they fail?
- How are the stakes shown, have they been established?
- What do they stand to gain?
- What do they stand to lose?
- Who or what are they risking in order to achieve it?
Questions of Meaning:
- How personally invested is the protagonist in the outcome?
- How much do they care about it?
- Why does the character care so much about it?
- What do the stakes represent?
- What are the external consequences of your character’s actions?
- How are other characters affected?
Let’s answer some of these useful questions with THE TERMINATOR and VALKYRIE as examples.
Doing so will help us to explore how high stakes impact the main character and affect the story world around them. The process does not need to be complicated. Keep it simple.
- The main story goal, for Kyle Reese, is to preserve the safety of Sarah Connor.
- The Terminator’s main goal is to kill Sarah Connor.
- Kyle Reese wants to protect Sarah Connor and to stop The Terminator.
- The Terminator stands in the way of Reese’s goal.
- Consequences if Reese fails will involve SKYNET, the defensive artificial intelligence network, becoming self-aware in the future and initiating a nuclear holocaust against mankind.
- Kyle Reese stands to gain a leader for the Resistance in the future, as Sarah’s unborn son will lead humanity in the fight against the machines.
- Reese stands to lose the salvation of mankind, his own life, and the life of Sarah Connor, if he fails.
- He is risking his own life in order to achieve the goal.
- The stakes have been established and shown through Kyle’s nightmarish visions of the apocalyptic future, as he recalls his experiences of being a soldier in the war against SKYNET.
- The assassination of Adolf Hitler serves as the main story goal for Claus von Stauffenberg and the German Resistance.
- German SS officers, the ever-watching Gestapo, and the German Army stands in the way.
- Consequences, if the conspirators fail, will be execution.
- If they succeed, they stand to gain peace. The Reserve Army will be distributed to Berlin in the event of a national emergency, in order to take control of the government. The order is rewritten to exclude members of the SS and to dismantle the Nazi regime.
- The resistance members stand to lose their freedom and their lives.
- They are risking their lives and the lives of their families, in order to achieve the goal.
- The threat is shown, consequences have been established, with certain discovered officers being arrested and executed.
- Other characters, such as family members, will be affected if the officers are found out to be traitors.
Complications & Higher Stakes:
Consider Michael Hauge‘s Six Stage Story Structure, with Stage IV being dedicated entirely to ‘Complications and Higher-Stakes’.
This is a stage that will occur in the second half of Act II, between the 50% and 75% point of the story. Hauge notes that at this stage, the movie raises and intensifies the stakes.
- The outside world needs to start closing in on your hero.
- Obstacles get bigger and bigger.
- They come faster and closer together.
“A rival boyfriend might show up, or the villain discovers that the hero is onto him and the pursued is going to become the pursuer.”
We can get a better idea of these obstacles in action by familiarising ourselves with complications that arise in THE TERMINATOR, in which the stakes are a primal matter of life and death.
- The Police close in and arrest Kyle Reese after the car chase.
- The Terminator attacks the police station, killing several people.
- Reese recites a message from John, informing Sarah that she must survive or else he will not exist.
- The Terminator acquires the location of Sarah’s safe-house through a phone call.
- Kyle tells Sarah that he came across Time for her, he confesses his love for her.
- The Terminator arrives at the location of the safehouse.
- Reese is wounded by a gunshot in the ensuing car chase.
- Sarah is pursued by The Terminator in an oil tanker, which Reese blows up with an explosive.
The Terminator survives, emerging from the flames.
6 Tips for Raising the Stakes
Tip #1 – Create a List
In order to keep the viewers engaged, push the conflict as far as it can go.
One exercise to assist you in generating conflict and high-stakes is the creation of a list.
- Set a timer for 10-15 minutes and list as many sources of conflict, stakes, and complications as you can think of. They needn’t be perfect at this stage.
After the timer goes off, decide which complications, stakes, and conflicts are relevant to your character.
Now put them in an objective hierarchy regarding their level of importance.
- It is important for these primary stakes to be established in the setup of Act 1.
- Doing so will not only allow for an exploration of greater conflict in the second half of the story, but it will also signify why the characters are pursuing the goal in the first place.
Tip #2 – Make it Personal:
High-concept genre movies have a tendency to focus on the spectacle of external conflict, as opposed to the intimacy of smaller, character-focused stories.
By making the external high-stakes affect the main character on a more personal level, writers can achieve the best of both worlds – consequently, attaching greater meaning to the already important stakes.
- With Kyle Reese being in love with Sarah Connor, there is suddenly much more meaning attached to his attempts with protecting her. He is personally invested.
- DIE HARD (1988) features an NYPD officer, John McClane, who tries to save his wife and several others taken hostage by German terrorists during a Christmas party at the Nakatomi Plaza in Los Angeles.
- By making his ex-wife one of the hostages, McClane is personally invested.
- There is something at stake for him to play for. He has something and someone to lose. The audience cares because he cares.
Furthermore, don’t forget about the other characters. They may not be as charismatic or interesting as the main character.
- However, every supporting character should stand to win or lose something of their own, depending on the results of their central conflict.
- In addition, try to make each character relevant to the main character’s goal.
By giving each character a central problem, which impacts the protagonist‘s journey, you will give them a sense of purpose in the story and avoid them becoming two-dimensional.
A masterful example of the supporting character who fulfils his own character arc, whilst playing an integral part in the main character’s journey, is Sgt. Al Powell in DIE HARD:
- Powell wins back his confidence and gains the ability to fire his gun, following a previous tragedy that prevented him from using it.
- In firing his gun, Powell saves the lives of Holly and John from one of the attacking henchmen.
- Powell also acts a confidante and mentor figure to McClane during the most difficult times.
- As a result of his decision to trust and help John, he also risks his reputation and credibility within the police force.
Tip #3 – Triangle of Conflict:
Increase the stakes by incorporating a third member into the central conflict. The triangle of conflict requires:
- Stakes Character.
Protagonist – the leading character (sometimes characters) of the story.
Antagonist – a person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary.
Stakes Character – the person that the protagonist and antagonist are in competition for.
The Stakes Character personifies the story objective and that which is at stake for the main character. Let’s again look at some examples:
Protagonist: Kyle Reese.
Antagonist: The Terminator.
Stakes Character: Sarah Connor.
- Sarah Connor personifies the Resistance, humanity’s salvation and the source of hope for mankind in the war against the machines.
Protagonist: Claus von Stauffenberg.
Antagonist: German Army.
Stakes Character: Adolf Hitler.
- Adolf Hitler personifies the Nazi regime, alongside the atrocities of war and genocide, which the conspirators wish to end.
Protagonist: John McClane.
Antagonist: Hans Gruber.
Stakes Character: Holly Gennaro McClane.
- Holly personifies the lives of the hostages, as well as the importance of John’s need to rescue his marriage.
Tip #4 – Story Limit:
Introducing a story limit is a useful tool that provides the audience with information regarding two elements:
- Tension – after a suggested deadline, something life-changing will occur.
- Duration – provides an indication of the story’s time limit.
Writers can achieve this through one of two ways. By answering the question:
Is the story option locked or time locked?
Either the main character runs out of options or time.
- Options: CASINO ROYALE – Bond loses the funds of the British Treasury in the high-stakes poker game and must acquire more funds elsewhere.
- Time: SPEED – The fuel meter is running low on the bus. It is only a matter of time before the bomb will go off when the bus drops below 50mph.
Furthermore, tension can be increased with dramatic irony by having certain characters unaware of a ticking-clock, which the audience is aware of.
- VALKYRIE – The German officers and Hitler are unaware of the bomb underneath the table.
- THE TERMINATOR – Sarah is unaware that The Terminator is using a voice emulation ability. She believes she is talking with her mother on the phone. He discovers their location and is on his way.
Ask yourself… “who knows what and when do they know it?”. How can this be used to escalate the stakes for both the characters and the audience.
Tip #5 – Consequences:
Consequences are often associated with negative connotations. But they can also be positive.
Positive consequences and small successes will, in turn, also have their own consequences and will affect the external world. Be mindful of the push/pull dynamic following the events onscreen.
- Every action, decision, encounter, conflict, or revelation, must either put the character one step closer to or one step further from achieving the goal.
- Start applying a +/- system to track the progress of your characters journey.
In addition, it is worth remembering that real people make mistakes. Therefore, the characters in a story should also make mistakes.
They are not perfect beings. That is to say, if they are to be convincing they should be flawed in some way. Therefore, they won’t always get things right.
- In DIE HARD, we can see these character flaws and imperfections in John McClane through the troubled relationship with his ex-wife, Holly.
- In some scenes, they make progress towards rebuilding their relationship, allowing John to get one step closer to achieving his inner goal of reuniting with her.
Tip #6 – Think Scene-by-Scene:
Characters must stand to win or lose something in each scene.
- With every scene, ask yourself, what are the stakes here?
- They should get higher and higher with every stage of the journey.
It is not always the case, however, that there must be a protagonist vs. antagonist in every scene. Just so long as there is something at stake.
- In DIE HARD, John McClane must improvise in many problematic scenarios within the plaza building. One scene, for example, deals with McClane removing broken glass from his feet, resulting in extreme blood loss, which puts his life at stake.
- In THE TERMINATOR, when Kyle Reese tells Sarah Connor that he came across time for her, confessing his love, there is no antagonist present in the scene. But there is something at stake: the love of one character for another.
If you can tell your character’s story at a life-changing moment the high-stakes will automatically be higher. This will also further engage the audience in the stakes.
- Keep asking meaningful story questions on a scene-by-scene basis.
- Develop the courage to put your characters through a personalised version of hell.
- Consider what is on the table for each character within the triangle of conflict.
- Increase the complications and tension as the character must deal with surmounting odds.
- Do this within a character-driven, option-locked or time-locked story limit.
This will put you one step closer to achieving the goal of compelling the audience to stay emotionally invested and to give meaning to the high-stakes of your story.