It’s one the biggest stumbling blocks for any screenplay. You’ve finished your first draft, and everything is in place – your amazing, original high-concept idea has been fleshed out with a well-developed protagonist, an equally as compelling antagonist, and a cast of colorful supporting players – but there’s one thing missing.
In spite of everything else that you can get right with your story, if you fail to effectively establish high enough stakes for the audience to care, then your script is destined for the “Pass” pile. In order to make sure your script evades this trap, let’s take a deeper look into the issue.
Establishing the Stakes and ‘The Fugitive’
I like to use The Fugitive when discussing the stakes of my client’s screenplays, because it’s such an easy and straightforward example to understand. The stakes for Dr. Richard Kimble are right there at the beginning of the story – to find the identity of the one-armed man who murdered his wife, and clear his name. Not only is it crystal clear to the audience what Kimble is trying to accomplish, it’s also clear what will happen if he fails. It’s this sense of importance to the story that gets your audience to engage; to care about your protagonist and the journey you’re sending them on.
That’s not to say that every movie has to have life-or-death stakes to matter; merely that, within the confines of the world we’re witnessing, the conflict has to matter. There has to be an impact. Sit back and honestly ask yourself how will your main character’s life be different if they don’t achieve the goal you’ve laid out for them. If the answer is “not much,” then you haven’t raised the stakes enough.
Your protagonist might be fighting to keep their restaurant from being closed down. It’s not the end of the world in the way, say, The Avengers is literally dealing with the potential end of the world. But if your main character has worked their entire life to open this restaurant, it’s been their dream since they were a child to have this restaurant, and if they lose it, then they’ll go bankrupt – lose their home – and generally lose their path in life… those are big stakes for that particular character, in that particular story.
Additionally, you’ll want to try and have the stakes take on both an external and internal aspect within the story to really and truly resonate with your audience. Let’s go back to The Fugitive; from an external perspective, the stakes are Kimble’s freedom and his very life, as he will be executed if he is recaptured. But the stakes also matter from an internal perspective, as he wants to catch the real killer and bring some justice for his wife. On a less serious note, pretty much every romantic-comedy also has this dual-stakes structure. The main character needs to win the guy (or gal), while also achieving some sort of accomplishment in either their professional or family life.
As in The Fugitive, these goals are complimentary and are both served by the plot of the film.
- Make sure your stakes are large enough for the type of story you’re telling;
- Make sure you make it known what the stakes are to your audience as early as possible; and
- Make sure your protagonist is struggling with the stakes in both an internal and external manner within the plot.
Until next time, the hunt is on for the one-armed man, so keep writing!
- More Specs & The City articles by Brad Johnson
- Balls of Steel: When to Stop Listening to Screenwriting Experts
- Meet the Reader: On Sluglines and Other Matters
- Script Angel: What is at Stake? Making the Small Feel Big
Tools to Help: