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!

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.