If the stakes are high…. Your story will fly!

One of the ongoing problems I see in my students’ screenwriting is that the stakes simply aren’t high enough in their scripts. What I mean is, they set up a problem that—no matter the solution—will leave the hero in the same position at the end of the script regardless of whether he wins or loses.

This is a huge problem.

In order for the script to work (and really this is true of a novel and likely short story as well) the world must change dramatically if the hero wins, but it must also change dramatically if he or she loses too. Otherwise, what’s the point of the story? And your audience/ reader will see right through it.

To ensure your stakes are high enough for your hero, consider the following points:

  • The hero wants something and has shown through his or her actions that they’re willing to do anything to get it. A person who is this intense and working toward a life-altering goal is doing things he or she may never have tried before—and they’re likely exhibiting some kind of courage to do it. With that being said, how could life ever be the same again?
  • Ask yourself why the hero wants to achieve this goal. What are the solid answers to that question? Usually this centers somewhere in the realm of the hero’s view of his/ her own self-worth. This is not an issue to be taken lightly.
  • Articulate clearly before you write how the world will be different if the hero wins or loses. This might make the concept of stakes clearer and more tangible.
  • Near the end of the story the hero should have exhausted all avenues in their efforts to find success. In doing this, the world has already changed. For better or worse is up to you—but the change will be there.
  • This may be a little bit of a side-note but something else that helps me make sure the stakes are high enough is knowing how my story will end before I start writing. It’s a habit I picked up when I studied screenwriting, but I find it helps in all forms of writing in terms of character development, plot progression, and even setting the stakes. I’ll likely write a separate blog post about this in the future.

Setting the stakes can seem like a daunting task at the beginning of the process. But if you think about anything you’ve done in your life that you’re incredibly proud of or that was very difficult, and you’ll likely find the reason this was so was that there were clearly established stakes that made all the difference.

Film examples of setting the stakes – Big Fish (Edward will die before his son knows who he is, and before their relationship—they’ve been estranged for years—is healed), Bruce Almighty (Bruce is selfish and if he doesn’t change he won’t really understand what love is or how to treat others), Wall Street (Bud is bent on success, but if he finds it, he may lose his family and soul)… see how important this is? Your hero’s victory or defeat is the center of the story- but only because in that he/ she’s life is changing in dramatic, unbelievable ways.

So, what are the stakes for your hero?

Happy writing!

Editing 101: Sharpen your story

With a little tweaking to your editing process, you might find significant improvement in the outcome of your story/ novel/ screenplay or other writing.

Below are some ideas from my writing and teaching experiences, as well as thoughts from a professional editor.

  1. Get the story finished! – Feel free to make minor edits as you write but the best practice is to finish the story so the structure is already in place. Overall this makes the editing process more effective (and easier!)
    • And take time away from it
      • This will allow even the best editor to see clearly what is not working in the story, characters, dialogue, and so much more
  1. Replace some of the following words where appropriate
    • Feel/felt, have/ had, hear, knew/ know, see/saw, just, then, than, maybe, look, watch/notice/observe, so and very
      • You may be shocked at how often these words (and others) appear in your work
  1. Does your timeline make sense?
    • If ‘three days pass’ between one event and the next, is it possible for your character to do what you say she/ he is doing? (like going to the bank, for instance, which may be closed on a Sunday)
  2. Read your story in print
    • Different than reading on a computer or on a Kindle
    • You might catch mistakes that otherwise could be missed
  3. Share it with a friend and get his/ her insights
    • Fresh eyes can be incredibly helpful in the process
      • May help you to see where logic problems, typos, or other questions are apparent
  1. Cut yourself slack
    • No one is perfect. You may not catch every mistake
      • This.
  1. Fight for your story
    • You don’t have to make all of the recommended changes from a friend or your editor
      • Some will be preference issues
    • You know your story better than anyone
  2. Have fun!
    • Editing is making your story stronger and better!
    • I mean it. Really.

What are your keys to editing success? Share them in the comments!