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!

Writing Tip of the Week: The Importance of Conflict in Your Story

People generally do all they can to avoid Conflict in their everyday lives. We will often go to great lengths to stay out of situations that make us uncomfortable, make us confront an issue, or even deal with someone who makes us feel anything but peaceful. For the most part, humans prefer a sense of neutrality.

But not in fiction.  

Fiction requires Conflict as an essential ingredient to make a narrative move forward. There has to be something or someone driving the protagonist to act; to get them out of their neutral state and make them work toward a goal that looks impossible to achieve on the surface.

Let’s explore a little about Conflict and its role in fiction.

Conflict = Dramatic Tension

Your protagonist wants something. Another character wants something else. Only one of them can get what they want in the scene or chapter. And so, this Conflict creates Dramatic Tension between the two characters, and – hopefully – the Conflict and dramatic tension pique the audiences’ interest. Who will get what they want? How will they negotiate to get what they want? What are they willing to do or say to achieve their goal?  

Watch any film or TV show, and you will see this played out on either a small or a larger level. If you watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – or most procedurals – you can see this play out in almost every scene. There is a conflict between the detectives over how to interrogate a suspect. There’s Conflict between the suspect and the detectives interrogating them. There’s Conflict while a witness is being questioned. All of which creates Dramatic Tension and leaves the audience curious and wanting more.

Comedy is also rife with Conflict. Yes, Dramatic Tension does exist in sitcoms and comedy movies as well. It’s what helps keep the story moving forward and the audience engaged. On I Love Lucy, Lucy Ricardo wants to be in a TV commercial. Her husband, Ricky, says she can’t do it. A Conflict between the two characters has now been created. It then evolves into Dramatic Tension, which in this case is played for laughs.

Conflict Isn’t Always Good vs. Evil

When we picture Conflict, we think of Batman vs. The Joker or some other large-scale epic showdown between good and evil. But that is not the case. While this is a clear-cut example, conflicts are often between best friends, or kids and parents, or employees and employers.  

Maybe the characters just have a minor disagreement about how to punish their child for their bad behavior. Perhaps it’s a conflict between and father and son over what type of first job the son should apply for. Small conflicts between characters that aren’t an explosive battle of wills destroying Gotham City can be just as impactful, just as exciting, and just as engaging.

Conflict Should Be Organic

The source of the Conflict that occurs should have sense and logic to it within the story you are telling. Have you ever watched an action movie where a car chase or bar fight just happens for no reason? If there’s no reason for the Conflict to arise, it feels forced and out of place.

All characters want or need something. When your characters each want something different, a conflict is formed. In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos wants the Infinity Stones to achieve his goal. The Avengers have an opposing goal: stop Thanos from acquiring the Infinity Stones. It’s a basic conflict, but it makes sense and is logical within the confines of the story being told.

There should be a reason for Conflict to exist at that moment in the story. If there’s no conflict present, figure out why and what’s causing a lack of Conflict between the characters involved. At the same time, don’t force Conflict to happen. If you cut the scene or chapter, would it impact the story?  

Conflict Ups the Stakes for the Protagonist

Imagine a story where nothing goes wrong for the protagonist. No matter what, everything goes right. Now, take that same character on her way to a big job interview, when someone runs into her, shoves a device in her hand, and seconds later, the office building she was headed to explodes and collapses. As she comes back to the reality of the chaos around her, she discovers there’s a detonator in her hand. Her fingerprints are all over it. Someone notices the device in her hand and calls out. Panicked, she gets up and runs.

She’s now wrongly accused of blowing up a building that she was headed to, with her fingerprints on the detonator and people screaming that she caused the explosion.

Talk about Conflict and Upping the Stakes!

While this is an extreme example, giving the protagonist a – even to them – life and death situation to deal with gives them motivation to achieve a goal despite the odds. Katniss in The Hunger Games ups the stakes on herself when she volunteers to take her sister’s place in the games. The stakes continue to mount as the games continue, and she must do all she can to survive—plenty of Conflict.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods wants to go to Harvard Law School. Based on what we know about Elle at this point in the film, even we think she’s creating stakes that seem impossible.  

Both The Hunger Games and Legally Blonde show us two strong protagonists actively putting themselves into situations where the stakes could not be higher for either one of them. The stakes up the Conflict, which increases the Dramatic Tension, which keeps the audience engaged.

Internal and External Conflict

Characters can have inner conflicts, wants, needs, desires, and motivations. These can help add dimension to a character and help lead to their growth and arc through the narrative.  

External conflicts are opposing forces outside the inner life of the character.  

In Lethal Weapon (1987), Sergeant Martin Riggs is depressed and suicidal (Internal Conflict) after the death of his wife (External Conflict). His new partner, Sergeant Roger Murtaugh, is melancholy about his age and retiring from the LAPD (Internal Conflict). He is not very happy to be saddled with a new partner who’s a live wire (External Conflict). Two characters with conflicting internal and external conflicts then have to face a conflict even larger than them. No wonder the movie was such a hit!

Giving your characters Internal Conflicts that must be dealt with during their External Conflicts is an excellent way to up the Stakes and add to the overall Dramatic Tension.

Creating Conflict between characters in your writing is a fun way to see how your protagonist and others respond to someone entering their space and destabilizing the neutral world they – like all of us in the real world – so desperately desire. Take a few of your characters and write a couple pages of Conflict between them and see if you discover anything new about them.

And, the next time you watch a movie, a TV show, or read a novel, observe what the Conflict is in each scene, what the stakes are, and how those conflicts and stakes lead to the dramatic tension in both the scene and the narrative as a whole.  

Happy writing, and I’ll see you next week!

The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.