Writing Tip of the Week:  Upping the Stakes

Whether it’s a Marvel movie or a Hallmark Channel movie, stakes for your protagonist and what they mean for the story matter. Your main character needs to have a goal, have a plan, and for there to be dire consequences for the main character if the goal isn’t achieved. This is where stakes come into play; making sure your hero – and the reader/viewer – know that what they are about to work toward won’t be a cakewalk.

Let’s talk about stakes!

Stakes in Perspective

What’s at stake in your story? Will the world be destroyed if the main character doesn’t win the day? Will grandpa lose his rose garden to evil developers if $50,000 isn’t raised in a week? It’s crucial to look at what’s at stake in your story to make sure they are realistic and proportional to the world you have created.  

Whatever the level of stakes, they should be a logical extension of the world you have introduced to the audience. If we are in a small town and you plan to tell a story that revolves around the small town, then the stakes should be things that could threaten the stability of someone’s world in a small town.  

If you’re doing a larger-scale story, the stakes for the main character could have statewide, nationwide, or global implications.  

Take the time to examine the stakes in your story and if they fit the overall narrative arc.

What is the Goal or Objective?

The inciting incident of a story rips the main character out of their calm, ordinary existence. It sets them on a new course toward a goal that hopefully will bring peace and a return to a possibly better status quo.  

So, what is that goal or objective for your protagonist? What do they want to accomplish, need to achieve, need to stop, need to conquer?  

What’s the Opposition?

The opposing force to the main character’s goal should be seemingly insurmountable and a definite problem that the hero must face and overcome. There needs to be a reason why the main character can’t just make a quick phone call, drive to a location, get a loan, pay the back taxes, or some other easy-to-solve problem.

Opposition must make the protagonist’s life harder, and ignoring it or running away from it will only make things worse for them or those around them.  

While a Thanos or James Bond-level supervillain may be too big in your story, there are other types of antagonists in real life that can make your character’s life and their desire to achieve their goals harder and more frustrating.

Who or what is the opposing force in your story? Is it strong enough to cause hardship and struggle for your main character?  

Inactions Have Consequences

What does the hero lose if the main character doesn’t take on the needed goal or objective? Do the consequences of their failure have a ripple effect that harms others in their life?  

While most of us avoid conflict and opposition, your main character cannot. The protagonist is an active participant in the story and must act upon their impulses to solve the problem set before them, even reluctantly.

This is where the question of What’s at stake?  comes into play. If Thanos gets all the Infinity Stones and snaps his fingers, half the universe’s population turns to dust. If grandpa loses his rose garden, he’ll be homeless or thrown in jail.  

These possible outcomes motivate and drive the main character forward toward defeating the opposition and achieving their goal.

Life or Death: Literal vs Figurative

The stakes should be big enough that if the main character fails, bad things will happen. This doesn’t have to mean millions will die. This can be a figurative life or death struggle for your main character, resulting in them achieving a goal that others doubted. To them, it’s personal and internal, not external, but the idea of them failing must feel like the end of the world.

If Elle Woods in Legally Blonde doesn’t graduate law school and become a lawyer, the world won’t end; but in her mind, it does. Again, it’s a matter of stakes perspective within the world of your story. Elle has something to prove to herself and those around her. She has a goal; she has opposition. If she doesn’t reach her goal, she will look foolish to herself, to those around her, and she’ll be – as she says in the film – “a joke.”  

On the other side of the stakes spectrum, if Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t stop Valentine from activating his free SIM cards in phones worldwide that cause people to violently attack and kill each other, millions could die.  

Both are life and death stakes for their respective main characters, but Elle’s are figurative, while Eggsy’s are quite literal.

What happens to your main character or their world if the stakes aren’t overcome? Will they alone suffer the consequences, or will others as well? Will people literally die, or are the deaths more internal and personal?

Many Roads

We are storytellers. Storytellers have a powerful gift to create and invent worlds, characters, stories, and stakes. Along with that power comes our ability to change things, add, subtract, multiply, and even divide stakes and consequences for our main characters.

As you work on your story, think about other possible stakes and challenges your main character could face. Don’t limit yourself, just see where your imagination and creativity take you. Too often we can become confined in a box of possibilities that can be very limiting when making the best creative choices for our story.

The sky’s the limit here. In the end, you’ll want to then go over the list and find the stakes that a) fit your story, and b) are big enough to seem impossible to achieve, and use those in your story.  

Have fun with this. Whatever the stakes are should be big enough, dire enough, and challenging enough to motivate and drive your protagonist forward in their pursuit of their goal and the defeat of their opposition.

Don’t Make It Easy

Never give the hero an easy out. There must be a clear reason why these stakes must be confronted, and the goal must be achieved. It has to be tough, and there have to be setbacks, doubts, frustrations, and thoughts of giving up.  

But a hero never does.

In the battle against Thanos in Avengers: Endgame, all hope seems lost as Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America are pummeled mercilessly by Thanos. But even with his shield shattered, his face bloodied, and his uniform ripped apart, Captain America tightens his shield around his arm and stands back up to face his seemingly unbeatable foe.

The stakes of not fighting back are too high.

This leads me to my final point…

Make Us Root for the Protagonist

Audiences want to see or read a good story, and they are looking for a strong main character to follow and root for. Most of the time, we know that the main character will win by the end of the story, but we are there for the ride.

The trials and tribulations, wins and losses, ups and downs. We are present and committed to seeing how the protagonist faces the stakes before them.

Our job as writers is to create a main character that the audience will root for throughout the story. This is why it’s important to craft a narrative that isn’t easy for the hero to traverse; the stakes have to feel like they might just be big enough to take down our main character.

Have you ever been in a full movie theater where everyone is so focused on what’s happening on-screen you could hear a pin drop? Or stayed up way too late to finish a book because you had to see what happened next? Substantial stakes lead to these moments. They are an essential tool that writers need to use to create strong, effective stories that suck people in and make them want the hero to succeed.

Final Thoughts…

This week, take some time to look over your story’s outline or your latest draft. What are the stakes for your main character? Are they big enough? Strong enough? What impact will these stakes have on your main character or those around them if they aren’t overcome? Are your main character’s goals and the opposition to their goals clear?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Drafting The Wizard of Oz (1939) – Ten Writers, Hundreds of Ideas, and One Classic Film


It’s crazy to think that MGM’s The Wizard of Oz is 80 years old this year.  For eight decades, audiences have enjoyed the story of a young girl from Kansas who is swept away via cyclone to the magical world of Oz where she meets three unique friends and must team with them to reach her goal of returning home. Adapted from the L. Frank Baum novel, this timeless and classic film went through quite a journey to become the film we know and love today.

The adaptation process that was used to write the screenplay for 1939’s The Wizard of Oz can be summed up in two words: disjointed collaboration.  Ten (yes, ten) writers had a hand in bringing the world of Oz to life.  Unlike today, these writers were assigned by MGM to work on the project, then removed at the whim of the studio and quickly replaced. These ten writers included: Herman Mankiewicz, Ogden Nash, Noel Langley, Herbert Fields, Samuel Hoffenstein, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, Jack Mintz, Sid Silvers, and John Lee Mahin.


I recently read, and highly recommend, a great book – aptly titled The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz –  that breaks down how the iconic film was made.  One of the chapters discusses the writing process and the many drafts, changes, and edits that were made over a tumultuous year in the life of Oz’s screenplay.  For this post, I wanted to focus on a few aspects of some of the drafts that would have made the film entirely different from the classic film we know today.

Screenwriter Noel Langley is credited with creating the “forty-three page treatment [that] included much of what would be the framework of the finished film,” but that doesn’t mean all that he wrote was used (33-34).  While he added the concept of the two farmhands – Hickory and Hunk –  becoming the Tin Man and Scarecrow in the Oz sequence, the third farmhand, Zeke, was not in the treatment.  According to Harmetz:

“In Langley’s treatment, the Cowardly Lion was strictly an Oz character – handsome Florizel, fiancé of Sylvia, a beautiful girl held prisoner by the Wicked Witch of the West. Florizel had been transformed into a lion by the Witch in order to force the girl to marry her son, Bulbo.  It was Florizel, released from his enchantment, who killed the Witch by cutting her broomstick to pieces with his sword in a mid-air duel” (35).

Whew!  There’s a lot to unpack in that passage, but the main question I have when reading it is: Where’s Dorothy?  This seems like a totally different film in the same Oz universe, but has nothing to do with Dorothy’s journey through Oz and her objective to return to Kansas.  And who names their son Bulbo?


So, unlike Baum’s book where Oz is a real place, Langley’s treatment made it clear that Oz was a dream Dorothy had after being hit in the head during the cyclone.  Langley also follows Baum’s plot points – which are also in the completed film – up to a point in his treatment, then (like the paragraph above) he goes a completely different direction:

“The traveler’s [Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, the Wizard, and Lizzie Smithers] disguise themselves as a traveling circus.  They try to start a revolution against the Witch.  True love triumphs in the end” (36).  In case you’re wondering, Lizzie Smithers worked at the soda fountain in Kansas and told Hickory he was heartless.  Somehow, she pops up in Oz and falls in love with Hickory/Tin Man after he gets his heart.  At least Dorothy is a part of the story here, but still not the main driving force of the narrative.

Another interesting aspect of Langley’s script is the famous Ruby Slippers, which were initially silver as they are in Baum’s novel:

“They appeared in Langley’s March adaptation, but served no magical purpose.  They were not used – as they are in Baum’s book and the final movie – to enable Dorothy to return to Kansas.  He wrote them out of the script.  They were back in his second script as some vague magical object desired by the Wicked Witch” (40). 

Remember, Langley’s initial treatment became the blueprint for what would eventually become the film, so it’s crazy to think that the Ruby Slippers were at one point an afterthought. The fact that they were even written out of a draft is even more bizarre given their importance to Dorothy in the final film.


Again, based on what was mentioned above, Dorothy “was peripheral to much of the action” in Langley’s treatment and scripts, and “[t]he Witch seem[ed] much more interested in conquering the Emerald City than in doing anything to Dorothy” (43).  Here’s where the story takes a turn from just a fantasy to full-on epic:

“[The Witch] send ‘ten thousand men, four thousand wolves, and two hundred winged monkeys.’ The men are ‘dressed in Japanese ceremonial armour, the ugly wasp-like death’s-head type, which half suggests skeletons.’ The Witch is attacking the Wizard because she wishes to place her half-witted son, Bulbo, on the throne” (43-44).

So, now this simple story of a young girl who goes on a quest to return home had become a Lord of the Rings, Avengers: Endgame-level epic film with a monstrously huge final battle. But again, what’s missing is Dorothy being part of the any of it.  She’s merely a participant in the action, not the driving force of the action. Throughout the treatment and drafts she is passive and has no real significance to the story other than her being there and witnessing the drama and the battles taking place between the Witch and the Emerald City.


Plus, I can’t even imagine what the budget would have been to pull off this final battle in a film made in 1939!

As writers we can learn a lot from Langley’s treatment and script drafts.  He went there with his ideas.  He thought above and beyond what could technically be achieved by the filmmaking tech of the late 1930s, and yet we have proof that it was part of the drafting process for The Wizard of Oz.  Despite the huge ideas, the grandiose set pieces, and the giant battle sequence, the heart and soul of what became the classic film was buried in Langley’s initial treatment.

And that’s an important thing to take away from this: the heart of your story, the life force that gives it meaning and substance is in there somewhere.  Even if you have action sequences or fantastical battles, dig deeper into your material and find the heart of the story.

Langley also shows the importance of not sidelining your protagonist.  There seems to be no need for Dorothy throughout most of what is shown, and the deletion of the Ruby Slippers lessens her importance even more. As you write, whether it’s a screenplay or novel, keep track of your main character. 

It can be easy to go off on a tangent with another character, but ask yourself if that character’s story has significance to the overall plot and has any effect on the main character.  If not, you may want to create a new story for that character.  Or, if this character is far more interesting than your protagonist, switch out who the main character is.

Langley was one of ten writers who crafted The Wizard of Oz into the film audiences have loved for eight decades.  Through a disjointed collaborative process and the creative talents of everyone involved, the film has become a timeless classic. 

As you write, remember that even if your draft seems crazy, illogical, or isn’t working, you have the power and ability to rewrite, edit, and fix it until it’s at its best level of quality and entertainment value.

You can order a copy of The Making of the Wizard of Oz by Aljean Harmetz here, or grab a copy of the newest Oz book, The Road to Oz: The Evolution, Creation, and Legacy of a Motion Picture Masterpiece by Jay Scarfone and William Stillman (can’t wait to read this one!) here.


What’s your favorite scene, song, or line from The Wizard of Oz?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Citation:  Harmetz, Aljean. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. Chicago Review Press, 2013.