Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Raising the Stakes

Someone posted a comment on my Toronto Public Library blog requesting advice on raising the stakes. I'll try and explain what this means.

Often producers will read scripts--or really their lowly readers will read scripts--and complain about the stakes. Many of the scripts submitted to the library that I've been reading suffer from either low or unclear stakes.

What's at stake? Ask yourself that question when planning your screenplay. Your lead character must have something serious--preferably life or death--at stake in pursuing their quest. Without the highest stakes possible, the audience won't be interested in the fate of your character.

Stakes can only be life or death, really. If not literally, (and really try to have literal life and death at stake in your script), then the life or death of something that we would all find just below actual life in the importance scale needs to be at stake: love or way of life seem to be the only stakes that could still have as much impact for an audience as literal life or death. Anything less than this holy trinity of stakes is dangerous for a writer because we go to the movies to worry. Writers need to give the audience lots to worry about!

When I wrote Fraggle Rock, after the first season, Jim Henson insisted that on the first page of every script we wrote out a story grid:

Whose story:
What we learn:

Check out item 4 in that list. It wasn't enough for Jim to have it in the script. He wanted there to be no doubt for anyone from the cast to anyone on the crew what were the basic elements of that episode. If it's good enough for Jim Henson, it's good enough for me.

You probably can't raise stakes high enough. Don't hold back on stakes. Go for it. More is more. So always choose the story beat that will push your story to have the highest stakes you can imagine. You'll be surprised at how dramatic and engaging your script can become if you do.

No comments: