One of the most common mistakes I see newbie writers make is that they never raise the stakes in their screenplays. Whether it's a TV pilot or a feature film, they'll just present a problem and show the characters' work to solve it. But it always feels like something huge is missing.
What's missing are the stakes continually getting higher and higher. This can happen within character development and with additional conflict.
Today I want to talk about "stakes" with you. We'll go over what they are, how to raise them, and look at some fun examples.
Sound good? Let's go!
'The Lion King'Credit: Disney
What Are Screenplay Stakes?
When you're writing a scene, it has to be filled with conflict.
The stakes refer to what is at risk if the character fails to conquer that conflict. For example, let's say your character is climbing a high-grade cliff face, and their rope breaks. Thus, they're left hanging on. The conflict is the rope breaking and the fight to reach the top, and the stakes are life and death.
What Mistakes Do New Writers Make?
As I said up top, new writers will set the stakes but often forget to raise them. What I mean by that is they create a situation that has stakes, but the stakes never get higher. Think about our earlier idea of climbing a cliff and the rope breaking. The stakes are life and death.
But to raise them, what I told you that if you fall, you'd fall into a pool full of babies? And if you fall on those babies, not only will you die, but also all of those babies.
Now the stakes are even bigger for you to get to the top of that cliff safely.
So how can you raise the stakes in your own work?
'Mission: Impossible'Credit: Paramount Pictures
How Can You Raise the Stakes in Your Screenplay?
Everything comes back to conflict. The more conflict you have, the more your character has to lose. When you develop a character, you build in the goals of what they want in a story. This is their character motivation. To raise the stakes, you need more conflict between them and what motivates them to achieve their goal.
The more the characters have to lose as a result of that conflict, the more the stakes are raised. When the stakes are raised, the audience invests more in the story. This is what slides them to the edge of their seats. It's what makes people lean in to engage with your story.
Let's check some examples of professional writers and directors raising the stakes in some of your favorite movies.
'The Final Girls'Credit: Lionsgate
Some Examples of Stake Raising in Screenplays
One of the greatest movies of all time is Die Hard. I think it maybe has the best examples of stakes raising in any more ever. The movie starts with John McClane there to save his marriage. Those are stakes. Then terrorist show up, and it's McClane in a life-or-death fight as he evades them. Then they take his wife, and it's her life at stake, too. Then he learns they plan on blowing up the building, and it's everyone's lives at stake.
This continual raising of the stakes makes things harder and harder on McClane. We love that protagonist more and more as we see him fight through conflict after conflict to save the day.
Another example would come in comedy. One of my favorites is the movie Superbad. It's clear at the beginning of the movie that what's at stake is these two guys getting laid. But as the night progresses, the stakes actually become more real, with arrest being on the table, and then even their actual friendship hanging over everything.
This is not life and death, but it raises the stakes to a level where it feels like it's real. You don't want their friendship to end. And when it precariously hangs over everything, you root for them to make up with one another.
Summing Up Raising the Stakes
As you can see, stakes are incredibly important to storytelling. The more you can raise them, the more the audience digs in and enjoys the story with you. Raising stakes can also help you decide on the twists and turns of the story you want. The more you do this, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the more professional your writing will become.
Let me know what you think of raising the stakes in the comments.
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