Photo via Go Into the Story.
Stakes are the thing in the story that makes a reader care what happens.
Your fun characters and snappy dialogue and careful plotting literally do not matter if nothing much will happen if the plan doesn’t come together. And the stakes can be anything, really, as long as they are dreadfully important to the characters, and fit the tone and the genre.
- It must be specific. John McLane in Die Hard must stop a band of terrorists or they will kill his wife. That’s a stake. A movie based on getting to a wedding on time is weak on stakes, unless there is a compelling, specific, personal reason that being late for this wedding will be disastrous, such as your protagonist is in love with the groom.
- It must be clear. Spec scripts often take it for granted that what is important to the characters and why it’s important are self-evident. For clarity, if your ballerina protagonist feels she is aging and winning the lead role is all that stands between her and losing her place in the troupe, which would end her career, don’t keep that to yourself or allude to or hint at it. Show it, say it. Draw a big red circle around it.
- It must matter, and it must matter now. Burn the ships. A protag holds a priceless stolen piece of art for a violent criminal, just for a few days. Don’t allow 14 things to almost happen to this art. Your inciting incident is that he immediately smashes it. Now what? That’s the drama. Don’t shy away from big stakes because you’re not sure how to write your way out of them. Be confident. Push the story, and at the end, it turns out the piece was a fake. Easy. Big stakes do have answers, and you will find them.
Low stakes make very weak scripts. Fearlessly ramp up your stakes until they are nothing less than a howitzer pointed right between your protag’s eyes.
Annie is a screenwriter, story consultant, and reader for major screenplay competitions.