Monday, June 26, 2006

Raising the Stakes

When someone reads your script and they say “the stakes need to be raised in act two”, quite often there’s a sudden and overwhelming desire to grab the nearest blunt instrument and beat them savagely to death. It’s such frustrating advice to be given most of the time because it feels like the reader is disregarding the current content as not being dramatic enough, or is giving you a lecture on the basics of screenwriting when you’re already fully aware about stakes, and how they should be raised.

However, it seems worth mentioning as a vast majority of times, the stakes aren’t raised enough, and the read can become flat and devoid of interest. But here’s a radical suggestion: let’s stop using ‘raising the stakes’ as a phrase for all scripts and genres. ‘Raising the stakes’ really matters when it’s an action/adventure/thriller where the object of the hero’s desire is so palpable and identifiable, you want to twist and turn the audience’s expectation all the way to eleven.

‘Raising the stakes’ naturally does apply to all stories and scripts but the phrase implies some sort of surge of energy and momentum that can leave some writers confused as to the very nature of its advice. Let’s strip it back to the basics:

First of all, what’s at stake for the story?
This is identifying what the protagonist stands to lose if he doesn’t take part in the story. Don’t want to go to Mordor, Frodo? Then watch all of Hobbiton burn! Y’say you don’t like your new partner Riggs? Then prepare to be either kicked out of the force or commit suicide you loser! You just want to drive the spaceship home Ripley? Then watch your colleagues die and prepare to be slaughtered yourself!

Now, how do we raise the stakes? In other words, how do we make things worse for our hero?
Frodo. Well, the list is endless for the poor bastard. The Black Riders, The Eye of Sauron, Christopher Lee, Trolls, not to mention The Ring taking over his will and personality. Not an easy ride for the small fella is it? But he succeeds and by fighting the stakes and overcoming the obstacles, his character goes on a thoroughly dramatic and emotional journey.

Martin Riggs. Riggs doesn’t care about his life or his new partner but their investigation into a drug-smuggling operation makes them enemies to a group of former Vietnam War era mercenaries who want Riggs and Murtaugh dead, no matter what the cost. Riggs discovers a new sense of self, friendship and family with his near-to-retirement partner, and shucks, life isn’t so bad after all.

Ripley. Keep John Hurt off the ship. Nope. Well keep him in quarantine then. Sorry. Let’s sort this out and go home. Not yet sister. Watch John Hurt’s stomach explode and spend the rest of the film in a dangerous game of alien and mouse while all your colleagues die, die, die.

As you can see, the above examples are for action/adventure/thriller type films where it’s easier to implement stakes and how to raise them. But for dramas, comedies and other genres, it’s not as simple or clear-cut. It can be more subtle shifts in the characters’ behaviour and simply putting things in their way that they’d rather not deal with.

In Sideways, what’s at stake for Miles? He’s waiting to hear whether his book is about to be published and if it doesn’t, it’ll be the sad reminder of how he’s failed in life, not to mention his all-too-fresh divorce.


The stakes are raised by Jack, Miles’s irresponsible friend, who leads them on a more carefree wine tour than Miles would have liked, leading Miles to a near nervous breakdown and an improbable romance when he has to face up to the failures in his life. His book doesn’t get published. He wallows in self-pity. He doesn’t act on Virginia Madsen’s obvious interest but Jack makes everything worse for Miles at every stage, right down to making him retrieve Jack’s wallet from the bedroom of one of his recent one-night stands where she’s currently shagging her husband!


Some scripts, especially in the spec pile, are not as focused or as strategic as they could or should be in relation to what’s at stake. Sure, they could argue that the stakes are suitably raised, the character goes through escalating conflict, the situation gets worse for them, whatever, but in terms of its depiction and dramatisation, it could be lacking in a valid sense of style and structure. It could suffer from the sense of having the stakes crowbarred into the story because the writer’s aware that something needs to be done, and thinks they’ve done their duty, but the reader remains detached because it doesn’t feel organic and/or suitably entertaining to the narrative-flow.

I think Sideways is a good example because it’s a character-driven comedy drama that not everyone gets or appreciates but the storytelling is finely crafted so that things get worse for our hero without it being blatantly clear or obvious that the stakes are being raised. It’s just good storytelling. Emotionally engaging and funny but with a constant awareness of plot movement, twists and turns to maintain a natural sense of audience attachment. Now that’s hard to achieve but that’s when the craft of raising the stakes works the best: when it feels natural and inherent to the story rather than ‘putting your hero up a tree and throwing rocks at them’ (as some screenwriting advice goes).


Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I totally agree about Sideways and really got that film. It pissed be off a bit when I went to write a rave review about it on screen select and saw a load of reviews giving it one star that went something like:

"Totally rubbish, but wine buffs would love it"


"Avoid this film unless you know about wine"


"This is just a dull film about wine"

I can't remember what I wrote in response, but I think I suggested those people should stick with films like Star Wars, and they wouldn't know a good film if one slapped them to the ground and danced on their head singing "Good films are here again!" (sorry for going a bit Blackadder on you there).

Oh, that turned into a bit of a rant :)

Anonymous said...

You’ve hit the nail on the head with this one. There tends to be so much reliance in the industry on shorthand (take a bow certain producers, execs, script editors…) that they just throw out phrases like “raising the stakes” without a seconds thought, thereby freaking out already insecure writers. “Conflict” is another favourite they tend to parrot. Too right it’s necessary, but like the “raising of the stakes” in Sideways it doesn’t have to be blatant and obvious.

Cunningham said...

Let's not use "raising the stakes" but use the phrase, "What are the consequences?"

By asking that question you give the characters a choice. If the worst that could happen is that they get a slap on the wrist then...

I was at Screenplay Lab yesterday and we were reviewing a script and it just seemed that everything was way too easy in the script:

The two main characters got along.

They fell in "like" with one another rather quickly, and moved in together.

There were no downsides to their getting together or not getting together.

They were okay...which as you know is the death-knell for any drama or romantic comedy. There needs to be conflict, conflict, conflict...

And consequences. Lots and lots of consequences.

Danny Stack said...

Like it: what are the consequences? Nice. And more evocative than just 'we need to raise the stakes'.

A real annoying one for me is: "the structure could be tighter". Perhaps this needs to change to : "Why does it feel like the story loses its way in [this specific part] of the script?"

James Moran said...

The hardest one I got, and also the best, was "why does X character survive?" - meaning, why them and not the others. It made me think back and work out what this person could do that was cleverer than the others, rather than just surviving by luck.

But I've had the raising the stakes one, and "beat missing in act 3", and the most pointless one "where does act 2 begin?" Just pick a page between 22 and 40, you can easily argue for it...

Anonymous said...

Definitely needed that - HATE "raising the stakes"! Also the structure one too. Grr!

I wrote about Sideways on my blog a while ago, coming to the conclusion it was the notion of jeopardy and empathy that helped separate Miles' plight from others in similar films - his journey was clear, concise and obvious. It's those three things that separate an excellent protagonist from a run-of-the-mill one in my book.

Robin Kelly said...

Hmmm...I'm not so sure. I agree that proper notes are better than glib phrases but I like the industry jargon shortcuts - however ill-used and over-used they may be.

I'm off to cook dinner now, I need to braise the steaks.

Anonymous said...


Robin Kelly said...

Lucy, are you OK? It's like someone has inflicted some pain on you. Read my hilarious pun again, that will make you feel better!

Anonymous said...

Hi Danny,

A while ago you said we could ask questions. I'm hoping this still stands.

Does it matter if a feature comes in around 81 pages?

I have got it at 97 pages at one point but it felt forced and worse for it.

As this is a spec script would a reader take one look at it and think the writer knows nothing because it's not even met the standard page length and automatically pass on it?

Or would this page length be acceptable?

OR... is this a blatent sign that I haven't enough story and I'm in denial and need to totally rethink?

Is 90 pages the very minimum?



Danny Stack said...

Thanks Rach, and feel free everyone to keep those questions coming! I'll cover the short running page issue in the next post.

Anonymous said...

That would be brilliant.



John C. said...

I was always under the impression that raising the stakes meant putting more at stake than what is already on the table. In the above mentioned films, it seems more like the conflict is escalating - that is, more and greater obstacles are being put in the way of the protagonist's want.
To give an example of my understanding: in the beginning of Gladiator, Maximus is to be executed. What he has at stake, then, is his life. If he doesn't escape, he will lose his life. What he then finds out, though, is that if he doesn't escape - and this is where the stakes are raised - his wife and child will be murdered. So not only will his life be lost but those of his loved ones. He has more at stake. And so the stakes are raised.
Does that make sense?

Danny Stack said...

Good point, J.C., nice one!

John C. said...

Thanks Danny. Couldn't resist adding my two pennies' worth. Great blog, by the way. I'm starting at the beginning and working my way through. Have you thought of collating the entries and making a book?

Danny Stack said...

I've collated a few ebooks in the download section (10 Steps to be a Pro Writer, Script Reading etc), and the Scriptwriting Articles section has the best of the blog, pretty much...

John C. said...

Cool. I'll take a look.