What’s at Stake For Your Hero?

The emotion you must elicit with your stories will come primarily from the conflict your heroes face – the hurdles and obstacles they must overcome as they pursue their desires, along with their wounds from the past and fears of the future. 

But another form of conflict that is tied to all of these is the amount of risk your heroes must take on their journey. What do they stand to lose if they fail? What have they put on the line in order to succeed? In other words, what’s at stake for your hero?

As with conflict, the more that’s at stake for your hero, the greater the emotional involvement of your audiences, readers and prospects.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur telling an origin story about how you built your business, or a screenwriter drawing on your own experience of having your heart broken, you must elaborate on what you, or your movie hero, would lose if they failed.

In order to become self-employed, did you give up a job that was supporting you and your family? Were you risking your savings or going deeply in debt? 

Is your movie hero retaliating over the rejection by her lover by plotting to kill his new girlfriend? Or losing any chance of finding true love in the future by marrying the “practical” choice her parents are pushing her toward?

Or were the stakes for you more internal and emotional? Would failure have meant humiliation? Letting your family down? Losing a dream that had been your destiny for as long as you could remember? 

Since we’ve all experienced the fear of losing something of vital importance to us, stories like these create a deep level of empathy and emotion.

In Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network, hero Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants to create a platform with a million followers. And in the bookending story, he wants to successfully defend a lawsuit accusing him of stealing the idea for Facebook.

But Zuckerberg won’t literally die if he fails to achieve those goals. It just feels like that to him, because Facebook is the most important thing in his life. It represents great wealth and success. But more than that, it means status, accomplishment and the kind of connection to others he can’t admit he longs for. 

In the most powerful stories, the heroes’ desires represent their calling, their duty, and their destiny. These heroes are striving to protect the ideals they live by, or to finally achieve a feeling of significance or sense of belonging. 

Failure for these heroes will render their lives unfulfilled, meaningless or hopeless. As the hero of Rocky confesses to Adrian, “If I go them fifteen rounds, an’ that bell rings an’ I’m still standin’, I’m gonna know then I weren’t just another bum from the neighborhood…” 

In other words, ALL of these heroes believe their lives are at stake in some way. And their stories are the ones that elicit our deepest emotional involvement.