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:
Saving Private Ryan
No Country for Old Men
|Freedom/individual automony||12 Years a Slave
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
|Justice for horrible crimes||
|Keeping one’s family and/or way of life||
Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
|Winning a much better and deserved professional life, and future prospects||
The Pursuit of Happyness
Inside Llewyn Davis
|Being able to happily move forward with one’s ideal life partner||
|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)
School of Rock
The Bad News Bears
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
|A chance at happiness (which life circumstances threaten)||
Good Will Hunting
NOT BIG ENOUGH STAKES:
|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.