What Are Your Story’s Stakes?

What’s at risk if your main character doesn’t achieve their goal by the end of the story?  In other words: what are the stakes?  Will they lose their life?  Will someone they need to find lose theirs?  Will the serial killer strike again?  Will the world end?  Will they lose the knitting competition? 

Stakes are what keep your main character – and your audience – motivated to keep going.  If the stakes are too low, then your audience begins to wonder what’s in it for them if they keep watching or reading.  And if the stakes for your main character are so minimal that they can see the solution to their problem will be an easy one, then there really is no conflict or dramatic tension in the narrative to drive the main character forward.

When you think about the stakes and the obstacles your main character must face to reach their goal, ask yourself if they are challenging enough to actually elicit change and growth in your main character.  Will they have to sacrifice something?  Will they have to change their behavior or an aspect of themselves in order to reach their goal?  And what will it mean for them if they don’t reach the goal and the stakes result in failure?

When it comes to stakes, it’s okay to paint your main character into a corner.  It’s okay to give them a challenge that seems insurmountable to overcome.  In doing this you create a heightened level of tension that in turn keeps your audience glued to the screen or page.  How will they get out of this jam?  Will they have help?  How will overcoming this obstacle help them when the next one appears?

Also, too, remember that stakes are relative to the story you are telling.  If your main character is determined to win a quilting bee, the stakes probably won’t be: Win the bee or the world will be destroyed.  On the other hand, if the world is at stake, there should be a sense of urgency driving your main character to act, which will also create a sense of urgency in the audience.

And when it comes to creating urgency, nothing helps better than a Ticking Clock, which we will explore on Thursday!

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.