What are the stakes?

Jan 12, 2017 by

What are the stakes?

It’s a constant question producers, agents and executives will ask: What are the stakes?

And it’s maybe the most common thing that causes a script to “not work.”

If the stakes aren’t big enough, the audience won’t tend to care, or stay engaged.

It’s also very important that the main story problem is really hard to solve, and getting worse, despite the main character actively trying to solve it in virtually every scene.

But it begins with big enough stakes, in the central story problem.

It’s true in every genre, and in television, fiction and theatre, as well. Something life-changing has to be at risk for a story to really work. And that means something in the external life circumstances of the main character and/or other people the audience cares about (not just something within a character that needs to change).

Of course, different genres have different kinds of stakes. But what’s at risk always feels hugely important to the main character (and hopefully to the audience), consistent with its genre.

Obviously in horror, action, and thrillers, the stakes tend to be “life and death.” In a romantic comedy, it’s “not getting to be with your perfect partner.” Both mean a lot to the character and the audience, but they don’t tend to mix so well.

If life itself is at stake, everything else will feel less important, until that is resolved. So it helps to decide in advance what the biggest stakes are, and stay consistent with that. It can build, but usually shouldn’t change completely in terms of tone and genre (i.e. it’s a love story for the first half, until a monster starts attacking everyone).

Speaking of genre, I think Blake Snyder’s ten movie story types in the Save the Cat books are a particularly good tool for making sure the stakes are high enough — as he laid out ten different kinds of human situations that successful movies have traditionally been organized around.

I’ve compiled my own chart, below, of what I see as the 8 different levels of acceptable movie stakes, in rough descending order of size. To the right are movie examples, also listed in what I see as “biggest to smallest,” within each category.

I’ve also laid out 7 types of stakes I often see in spec scripts which in my opinion are not big enough, with an explanation as to why.

As always, I welcome questions or comments!

 

WHAT’S AT STAKE/AT RISK:

 

MOVIE EXAMPLES:

Life

Star Wars

Schindler’s List

Saving Private Ryan

No Country for Old Men

Gravity

Freedom/individual automony 12 Years a Slave

Argo

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Office Space

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Justice for horrible crimes

Die Hard

48 Hours

Zodiac

Chinatown

Spotlight

Keeping one’s family and/or way of life

Gone with the Wind

The Wizard of Oz

Finding Nemo

Toy Story

Mrs. Doubtfire

Winning a much better and deserved professional life, and future prospects

The Pursuit of Happyness

Working Girl

Jerry Maguire

Inside Llewyn Davis

Almost Famous

Being able to happily move forward with one’s ideal life partner

Brokeback Mountain

Forrest Gump

Moulin Rouge!

Pretty Woman

Wedding Crashers

Reaching an important prize that could change one’s life and self-definition, that a lot has been sacrificed for

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Rudy

School of Rock

The Bad News Bears

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

A chance at happiness (which life circumstances threaten)

Ordinary People

Good Will Hunting

Sideways

Boyhood

Inside Out

 

NOT BIG ENOUGH STAKES:

 

NOTES/EXPLANATION:

Any achievement (regardless of how difficult and time-consuming it might be) that isn’t hugely life-changing for the main character, and/or others who will follow. Being “first to do something” doesn’t necessarily make for a movie-worthy story, if we don’t see how lives of people we care about will significantly change because of it.

What matters is how lives will change for the positive or negative, both in the difficult pursuit, and in the reaching of the goal – not just the achievement itself.

A job, or career success — unless it’s a life-changingly important job that definitely cannot and will not ever be available elsewhere. The audience assumes a character will always be able to find another equivalent job, and it’s not the end of the world if they lose one.

And job success in and of itself will tend to not move an audience, if nothing bigger is at stake.

Learning something or changing some inner attitude, belief or personal quality. Too internal. Can work great, though, when combined with high external stakes, like those above. 
Military battles within a larger conflict which don’t represent one cohesive “mission” of great emotional importance to the audience. War stories generally work better when they’re focused on a specific mission with very specific and important stakes to the audience, or are personal stories about the difficulties and costs of life at war.
Generalized happiness or well-being, with no specific and significant external life change. Happiness is always the goal, but audiences seem to need characters battling against impossible specific external circumstances in pursuit of a measurable goal.
A single decision that needs to be made. Loglines sometimes focus too much on the “must decide” point for a character, but that decision needs to either be preceded by or followed by a challenging and extended gauntlet of some sort that meets the critera listed above.
An unsympathetic person becoming a better person (or pursuing an umsympathetic goal). Audiences generally won’t be hooked into caring about and wanting to follow an unsympathetic character in the first act, even if they are going to eventually change

 

     
If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.

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9 Comments

  1. George

    What a great list! I am working on two projects now. One of my projects has four out of seven of your “big stakes” and the other has six. Funny thing I never realized it until I read your post (yes, I’m new at this have lots to learn). This is a very handy tool to have in the story creation “war chest”. I believe it will help to keep me focused on what’s really important in the story. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. Steven

    Not to argue with but to continue the above points:

    Most discussions of stakes that I’ve read ignore the difference between “stakes that the audience might feel in a similar situation” and “stakes that protagonists feel in their particular situation.”

    For example, the big risk “Keeping one’s family and/or way of life” includes the stakes felt by the main characters in “Clerks” (and many other slacker protagonists). For them, remaining a slacker is a high stakes investment. Sometimes the storyline favors their point of view, sometimes it suggests that this is a wrong goal. At any rate, the key is the investment that the protagonist puts into achieving this goal. That’s why “Argo” and “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” are in the same category.

    The reverse is also true. If a protag doesn’t fear death, then a life-death situation won’t generate enough audience interest. Riggs must have a Murtaugh for a partner. The stakes in “Leaving Las Vegas” depend not on whether Sanderson will abandon his suicidal goal but on whether he will achieve intimacy before he dies–“A chance at happiness (which life circumstances threaten).”

    I bring this up only to challenge the assumption (which you do not make here) that raising stakes involves increasing physical peril. Although the risks are external (as you point out), it’s the internal response of the protagonist towards the degree of risk that counts.

  3. Alex

    This is an interesting post.

    What would you say about stories in which the point of the movie is that the protagonist realizes at the end that the thing he wanted was not the right thing for him? Is it still a problem if the goal doesn’t have high stakes? For example, imagine a poor college senior whose goal is to get a high-paying job at Google upon graduation (even though this would be completely wrong for him). And then during the course of the pursuit of that goal (which is thrown into jeopardy at the outset of the movie) he realizes the wrongness of his goal. Does it matter that the audience might be thinking, “There are other high-paying jobs out there”? I’m presently working on such a dramedy in which the main character is one who has always lived in the future (sacrificing the fun of college to earn good grades) and must learn to live in the present and recognize that the safe, stable career he envisioned for his future is not the right path for him.

    • The audience probably wouldn’t be totally supporting that goal (because there are other jobs, or they sense this isn’t the right thing for him to pursue, is too selfish and money-oriented, etc.), but it sounds like it could work as what SAVE THE CAT calls a “Rite of Passage.” In such movies, the goal the main character has is the “wrong way” of dealing with the pain of a relatable life passage like adolescence. The audience sees it’s “wrong” but relates to why they want it, and thinks it will cure what ails them. The main character ultimately ends up abandoning as “the answer” (in the third act) and maturely facing life with acceptance of the pain, and of life as it is. Maybe that’s what you have in mind?

      Sometimes, in other movies, the goal changes to something else that is MORE high stakes and more relatable, midway through or in the third act, like in LEGALLY BLONDE, where Elle goes from wanting Warner back to wanting success as a lawyer (which would be a life-changing thing for someone like her, and also sympathetic and important because it’s seen as heroic and will free an innocent woman).

  4. Simon

    Interesting, Erik.
    What about ‘Finding out who you are, your true identity’ – in the sense of finding out who your real parents are, or fully living your sexual/cultural identity (as in ‘Transparent’) or uncovering the truth about some dark family secret, or revealing your deeper ancestry (as in ‘Roots’). How would that kind of story fit into your scheme?

    • I think that would qualify under “a chance at happiness, which life circumstances have been threatening.” If the world seems to need you to be one way, that isn’t authentic to you, that IS a big problem. (Especially if trying to be authentic then leads to serious conflicts and difficulties.)

  5. Fernando

    Incredibly helpful, like all your posts Erik!

    Although I must say, that following an unsympathetic person becoming a better person did work very wel for Scrooge and As Good As It Gets.

    I think characters who are bad/evil/unsympathetic can work as long as they are very interesting to watch.

    Or did the movies I mentioned have a different main character? I assume you are talking here about the unsympathetic person as the main character.

    • Great question!

      I think there are rare movies where the whole point is that someone with a massive character flaw needs to get so beaten up by the events in the story that they ultimately change at the end. LIAR LIAR is another example. I think the key is that they need to REALLY get punished, and it has to be really entertaining to watch.

      AS GOOD AS IT GETS had three stories within it, to my mind, and two of them had incredibly sympathetic main characters, to balance out Jack.

      The problem I often see is stories where the main character is meant to be mostly sympathetic, and it’s not about “beating them up,” but they have serious enough opening character flaws (usually involving selfishness and not being good to others) that the audience turns off of wanting to watch them. This is where Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT moment can come in — but I think that moment needs to be really selfless, even self-sacrificing, to do the trick…

      LIAR LIAR had Jim Carrey being awesome with his kid (when he showed up), which helped…

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