Have you ever received feedback on your script that included the suggestion to “raise the stakes”? It’s a common note—-raising the stakes. Do you know what it means? At first glance, we would think the reader is telling us to make what’s at stake for your characters greater. But what is that?
Raising the stakes is a gambling reference, in that what is actually risked increases. For a story, the risks our characters face have to be increased. The Avengers are never challenged with only saving Nebraska or Honolulu. They are nearly always charged with rescuing the entire planet. And sometimes, even the universe.
We understand the difference. Finding a laundry basket is a smaller source of conflict compared to finding a child. But what is the reason we want to make the problem for our characters larger?
Raising the Stakes: Why is this important?
Making your conflict bigger simply to address the notes you’ve received without understanding why will hamper your revisions. Writers often don’t understand why successful stories demand certain elements to win over an audience.
The reason we raise the stakes in our story is to increase dramatic tension. Or as someone recently said, to make the audience nervous. We increase the risks to freak everyone out. We want the audience to identify with the stress our characters face. And if the stress the characters face is maximized, the tension we emotionally and physically experience in the audience will be even bigger.
If we identify with our characters and their problems, we feel compelled to see if they will be resolved. Why do we feel compelled to keep watching? Because on a base level, we want to feel safe. We want to believe in a world where we can overcome our problems, take on risks, face challenges and that things will work out.
This is the heart of why we watch movies and television.
Raising the Stakes: When do we introduce conflict?
Have you paid attention to when the conflict begins in a story? What’s the best time to begin the problems for our characters? Consider how soon the audience cares about a character. This is the function of setup. We introduce a world in order for the audience to identify with that world, then we jeopardize that world to launch tension. We can effectively introduce our hero in the first 10 minutes, for example, giving the audience time to get to know this person and recognize themselves in this person. Other times, conflict is started immediately, in part to get the audience to care instantly.
With characters we already love, the conflict can start immediately, so don’t be surprised if the next Wonder Woman movie opens with her facing a problem in the first scene, because world audiences love her, so we can have her meet a conflict immediately. And we raise the stakes when we introduce a robust conflict and we make the problem grow as the story goes along.
Raising the Stakes: How do we make the problems bigger?
When we’re asked to raise the stakes, we are being asked to make the conflict stronger. The reason raising the stakes is a common note is writers, like most people, AVOID conflict. We do not wake up in the morning and hope that we get into a fist fight that day. Writers unconsciously will have low stakes in their stories because they do not write conflict because conflict creates stress.
This is why good writing is hard to do. You have to run into the emotional risks your characters face and to write them honestly you have to experience those feelings yourselves. And you thought writing was going to be fun? Well, it doesn’t feel like fun, but ultimately, when we express our struggles through our stories and show how our characters eventually overcome their conflict, it’s an extremely gratifying experience for the writer and audience.
Our job as writers is to tell the honest story of life, which has challenges every day, but our lives have meaning because we walk through life together, and together it is meaningful. This is why audiences seek great conflict from you as a storyteller, and it’s our job to deliver the big problems and ultimately, the fantastic solutions.
By: Gordy Hoffman