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.
** MINOR SPOILERS **
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!
** THERE BE NO MORE SPOILERS **
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).