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 PostOcean’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.