What’s at Stake?
In response to our survey asking about how our followers are using stories, and what challenges you’re encountering, screenwriter Taha Ali asked what it means when “the stakes are high” for a hero. I replied by first asking him for a list of some of his favorite films to use as examples. Using one of the films from his list, here is my explanation of why this is an essential element of any story you’re telling, whether it’s for film, fiction or business, and how to maximize its emotional power.
The simplest way to understand the idea of STAKES for the hero (or for any character in a story) is to ask, “What will this character lose if he fails to achieve his goal?”
Every hero in every story must want something. The pursuit of that goal defines the story and moves the plot forward. If the hero is risking nothing, and has nothing to lose if he fails, readers and audiences aren’t likely to be emotionally involved, because the conflict doesn’t seem to matter very much.
In action films (Eagle Eye, San Andreas), horror films (It, Scream) or thrillers (Pulp Fiction, Untraceable), the heroes’ (and others’) lives are on the line. If these heroes fail they will die (or people they care about will).
But let’s consider a movie like The Social Network. In Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, hero Mark Zuckerberg wants to create Facebook and achieve a million followers. And in the bookending story, he wants to successfully defend a lawsuit claiming he stole 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 that than it means status, significance and the kind of connection to others he can’t admit he longs for. So that’s what’s at stake for him.
Whatever kind of story you’re telling, your audience must empathize with your hero. That way, what’s most important to your hero is what’s most important to them.
In a love story, we must believe that the romance character is the hero’s destiny. In many dramas (The King’s Speech, The Post, Ocean’s 8, The Greatest Showman, Wonder, I, Tonya), the heroes’ desires represent their calling, their duty, the ideals they live by, or the only hope they have of achieving any kind of significance or sense of belonging. Failure for these heroes will render their lives unfulfilled, meaningless or hopeless.
In other words, ALL of these heroes believe their lives are at stake in some way. And these are the stories that elicit our deepest emotional involvement.
Thematically the Social Network’s about narcism and how Zuckerberg wants everyone to like him and to be his ‘friend’. Every scene’s goal is social climbing/networking, with the Winklevoss twins being his great opposition to controlling the social network, and if he owns Facebook he can decide who’s in his network.
…and the way he can achieve this is by being the arbiter of who can talk to each other — every scene is about Zuckerberg’s social climbing and backstabbing the friends he leaves behind.
The end scene is the final task, which bookends the opening scene in addressing he’s moved on from the
Winklevoss twins and now back the lady from the opening scene… if can get her into his social network, then he can make her his friend after she
“It’s bigger than Harvard, it’s all schools”
Recently I watched “John Wick” a movie filled with violence. But at once, if you are listening, you can hear a story of lost love, heartache, revenge, with an existing mythic backstory of great significance. Love redemption loss. “…are you back?…” What does this character really have to loose but himself and or his life?
As for other screenplays these days. I find them redundant. As I watched films this past moth with my 16 year old granddaughter – I frequently guessed where the plot was headed. Good thing she didn’t mind – full of questions as to how I knew. Good it is very applicable in life if you can understand human nature and where life can take you. Write your own story. Write what you know. Let it grow first and then edit.
Got me to land and write! I’ve been circling my script like a lost bird. You are appreciated.
Enlightening! If only African story tellers could understand the importance of story structure, and what it is that constitutes to a great story, I believe African stories would be able to compete globally.
Michael Hauge, please setup a learning institute in South Africa, or anywhere in Africa. You already have a student in me.
Thank you so much. This is very informative. God bless you.
Thanks Michael, this article really helped me understand many things!
Ripped form a headline (vox):
A doctor wants to install his own MRI scanner to lower scan costs for his patients (clear and visible goal), but the certificate of need law means that he can’t have one, to be in competition with the hospitals. If he cannot beat the law, fewer of his patients will be able to afford the scans that could save their lives (high stakes).
Thank you so much! This is a great help with my lessons!
Thank you for this article. I really appreciate it and it comes for me at the right moment because I am editing the outline of my novel and I felt that my stakes aren’t high enough after the midpoint and I was right. Now, it’s time to get to work. Thanks a lot, once again.
Thank you sir, it’s really helpful for me!
Thanks Michael – always an inspiration and motivation to stay in my essence.
Thank you so much for your clear and workable explanations. They save me time and again.
The Social Network and/or Steve Jobs are on the outer edge of the edge of acceptable, as examples of a principle. For more substantial examples, in which the threat of the stakes are epic in scale, the validity of the premise of the central conceit  that can be nothing more than the “conceit” that the life of the POTUS is really of any importance, for the drama, (24) depends on evoking a primal emotional response that, for long enough, evades any critical thought. This may be the reason why movies that rely on myth and spectacle, travel well, throughout the world, yet are critically unfulfilling, and rely on a degree of contrived empathy, that is of a sufficiently universal applicability, yet has so little to do with the story, it really ought not to be in the story. The Achilles’ heel, of the high concept movie.
1. central concept that has to be accepted to achieve a suspension of disbelief
2. excessive degree of attached importance