by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
What causes an audience to care? Many writers have a difficult time being honest about what’s really at risk in their stories. But it is risk that audiences truly care about. When the stakes in a story are too low, people become unsympathetic to the protagonist on the journey. External goals should have real consequences. They should involve complicated choices. Strong stories often revolve around a character that must choose between two very compelling or two extremely undesirable choices. If the decision the character must make is simple, there’s really no need to go on much of a journey.
Good writing pushes the stakes in a story to the realms of life and death. It might not always involve a literal death, but should encompass the death of something – the death of love, the death of a dream, the death of hope. Here are four tools for raising the stakes in your story.
1. LIMIT SPACE
The stakes in a story will always feel low if the protagonist and antagonist never have to be in the same physical space. If your main character can accomplish her goal without ever entering the domain of the antagonist, you have a structural problem in your story. Forcing the central characters into the same realm causes the stakes to be higher, especially if we know only one character will emerge.
In Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, the vast majority of the film takes place in the single room of Minnie’s Haberdashery. Throughout the course of the story, it becomes very clear that not everyone, and perhaps no one, will make it out of the room alive. Orange is the New Black limits the space in their stories to a prison. The characters in the show must confront their enemies and problems in that confined space. American Horror Story has done a masterful job at confining their conflict to a central location throughout the series – sometimes a house, other times a hotel, and even a freak show.
2. LIMIT TIME
The stakes of a story always feel higher if the characters are working against a deadline that must be met. Many stories set in high schools feature goals that must be accomplished before the last day of school or the prom. Sometimes, good storytelling involves a character trying to get their hands on a sacred object before their enemy does. Other times, there is a variation on the classic scenario of a character trying to defuse a bomb before it explodes. Knowing that a story has a definitive finish line is comforting to audiences. We know this story cannot ramble on forever. The goal must be accomplished while the opportune window is open.
In The Big Short, the impending housing bubble will soon pop. All the characters involved in the story are frantically trying to accomplish their goals before it does. Crime dramas such as True Detective and The Wire often feature central protagonists racing against the clock to uncover clues and confront the darker aspects of consciousness before they can spread further.
3. LIMIT ALLIES
Most of us can face life’s troubles more easily if we know we have friends and family standing by to walk through suffering with us. Removing these crutches can cause a great deal of anxiety in audiences, and thus raise the stakes. We fear our own abandonment when we see a character face this. Sometimes our allies are eliminated through death. Other times they are eliminated through betrayal. Seeing a protagonist move forward on their journey after losing those they are closest to can be a harrowing experience.
In Joy, the protagonist’s family slowly becomes more selfish as she faces her greatest trials. At one point in the story, she realizes that she is truly on her own in battling the forces against her. In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character quickly loses all his allies. He moves through the entire story in isolation and loneliness. The more these characters seem to lose, the higher the stakes seem as well. Silicon Valley pits it’s key characters against eccentrics that quickly vacillate between being allies and enemies. The “cat and mouse” nature of those interactions keeps the stakes constantly feeling high.
4. LIMIT OPTIONS
Perhaps the most powerful tool we can use in raising the stakes of a story is limiting a character’s options. The more a character feels trapped, the more we as the audience clench the edges of our chair. Our brains react as if we were in the same situation. Many stories begin with a character having an unlimited number of options. As the narrative progresses, those options begin to be quickly and methodically removed. Finally, the character is often left with two options that both feel like losing propositions in some respect. Perhaps one of those options is then also removed.
When faced with two difficult choices, clever writers will find a way to provide the character a third path that had not been clear before. Determining a character’s choice in the end can be as difficult for the writer as it would be for the character making that choice in real life. This is always an opportunity for talent and experience to shine.
In Room, Brie Larson’s character seemingly begins the story with few options. As her son gets older, her options begin narrowing even further. The Sopranos forced its central protagonist, Tony, into a constant foray of decisions between his immediate family and his mob family. As the series progressed, his options to maintain both continually dwindled.
The key to raising the stakes in your story is limitations. Knowing where to limit time, space, allies, and options takes trial and error. Eventually, you will stumble on the right mix of limitations that will cause your audience to feel the reality of just what’s at stake in the story.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.