How to Make The Audience Care With External and Internal Story Stakes


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting, story analysis, story stakes

Of the four foundation elements we’ve covered in this series (protagonistgoal, and opposition/conflict being the first three), I think stakes are the most challenging for writers.

The idea of stakes is a complicated thing. When we’re talking about what’s at stake, we have to consider both the external and the internal, so it’s a multi-faceted topic. And when we’re talking about the internal, we’re trying to put words to something that’s not concrete – which can be tough.

Not only is an abstract concept harder to talk about, but it’s also harder to execute in a screenplay, as you may have discovered. And that’s exactly why I wanted to address stakes in this series. If you’re having a tough time executing stakes successfully in your screenplay, a good first step is to get comfortable identifying stakes in other screenplays and movies. So that’s our goal this week.

A few reasons you may be struggling with stakes in your screenplay

A lot of writers struggle with stakes (so if this is you, don’t worry – you’re not alone). And I think the reasons for that fall into a couple of categories:

  1. Story stakes usually require a multi-pronged (or multi-faceted) approach, as mentioned above. It’s a lot, and can be overwhelming. Add this to all of the other elements you’re juggling when you write a screenplay, and it becomes easy to neglect the stakes.

    As a result, maybe you end up with no stakes, or “maybe” stakes, or even semi-successful stakes. But unless the stakes are really strong throughout your screenplay, you’re leaving audience investment on the table.
  2. But in some cases the writers have thought about the external and internal stakes and figured out how the stakes work in their stories… but they’re struggling with how to show the stakes. How to convey it to the audience.

    As mentioned above, this tends to be more true of internal stakes. Concrete is easier to show. When something isn’t concrete you have to find creative ways to dramatize it, and in a way that the audience understands what you’re dramatizing – without being too on the nose about it, because that can work against you and take away the emotional power.

    So stakes can be tough to convey effectively.

Adding to the confusion is something I’ve written about before, which comes down to the difference between stakes and sacrifice. Writers often get these elements mixed up. For example, they might think they’re creating stakes when actually they’re indicating a sacrifice, and perhaps the story ends up missing actual stakes as a result.

Back up – what are we even talking about when we talk about stakes?

We’re focused on the foundation elements in this series, so we’re specifically talking about primary story stakes. These are the stakes that are created in the set up of the story (Act 1) that show us why the character(s) must go on this journey or pursue this goal in the first place.

It’s hard to keep an audience’s interest if they’re asking “So what?” or “What’s the point?” by the end of Act 1, when the characters are just about to launch into the main thrust of the story. We need to want to go along with them, otherwise we’ll put down the screenplay or turn the channel.

The stakes of a good story include both the external and internal components:

  • External stakes are the concrete, external, or physical consequences that will come to bear if the protagonist fails to achieve the story goal.
  • Internal stakes are what the external stakes mean to the protagonist. What it all represents on a value-based, emotional, or even philosophical level. (You might hear “emotional stakes” and “internal stakes” used interchangeably.)

When the internal stakes have been firmly established, the reader knows what emotional or internal impact the outcome of the story will have on the protagonist.

Here’s an example of the difference between external and internal stakes

In The Ring, if protagonist Rachel fails to achieve her goal (stop the curse), she will die. External stakes.

And if she dies, she will leave her young, sensitive son essentially parentless (the father isn’t involved), thereby proving herself to be a bad mother. That’s the meaning she believes her death would have. Internal stakes.

(This is specific to the character, it’s useful to note.)

One last thing to keep in mind: a key component of establishing internal stakes effectively is making sure the audience understands why the internal stakes coming to bear would be so bad for the protagonist. For Rachel, her struggle with balancing career and motherhood is set up from the beginning.

This is challenging stuff, but I think a thorough look at a real-world example will make it easier to grasp. So let’s get to it!

Up: the story foundation

(Screenplay by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy)

The Up screenplay is a tight 100 pages and made me cry three times, even though I’ve already seen the movie and know exactly what was coming. It has a lot of lessons to teach us, but let’s start with the foundation elements.

In Up, our protagonist is Carl. His story goal is to get his house to Paradise Falls.

(I love how weird that sounds on its face, but it makes total sense in the movie. That’s the power of context!)

There isn’t a main antagonist character in the story. Instead, the story’s main conflict is created by the difficulty of the task: Carl is trying to move a house to South America, powered only by balloons. That seems like a weird, hard thing to do – which is good, since that means it’ll be able to engage our interest and sustain the action for an entire movie.

Alright, so that’s ¾ of the foundation. What do we have left? Stakes!

What’s at stake in the movie Up?

If Carl fails to achieve his goal, what concrete, external, or physical consequence will come to bear?

Really, it’s only that the house won’t be in Paradise Falls. That’s the only external consequence if Carl fails to achieve his story goal. Remember, the stakes are attached to the story goal otherwise they’re not a real potential consequence.

So if we take this external consequence on its own, it doesn’t seem like enough to make us care about the story’ outcome, does it?

That’s where the internal stakes come in.

That’s what it means to Carl to deliver the house to Paradise Falls, and what it will mean if he doesn’t do it. That’s what makes us care. The internal stakes earn our emotional investment.

Why we care about some guy’s house

If the house doesn’t make it to Paradise Falls, it means that:

  • The one thing Ellie had to look forward to – her dream of adventure – will be forever unfulfilled.
  • Carl will have broken his vow to Ellie and let her down.

Together these amount to whole lot of guilt and regret on the line for ol’ Carl.

Now that we know what we’re looking for, let’s see where if we can identify where the internal stakes are established in the script:

  • Pg 4 – As kids, Carl meets Ellie in a dilapidated old house that she uses as her “clubhouse”.

    This begins to establish that the house is special to Ellie, and later – because of the meaning their relationship carries – to Carl as well.

  • Pg 9 – During their first encounter, Ellie shows Carl her Adventure Book and tells him:

    I’m gonna move my clubhouse there, and park it right next to the falls. … And once I get there… Well, I’m saving these pages for all the adventures I’m gonna have. Only… I just don’t know how I’m gonna get to Paradise Falls. That’s it! You can take us there in a blimp! Swear you’ll take us. Cross your heart! Cross it! Cross your heart. Good. You promised. No backing out.”

    This defines Ellie’s dream and establishes that it’s a lifelong dream, not some whim. It also establishes Carl’s promise. He crossed his heart! There’s no backing out.

    After that, Carl is smitten. This adventurous spirit and big dream is very much at the heart of their relationship.

  • Pg 10 – The childhood sweethearts, now grown, get married and buy that dilapidated old house to fix up and make their home.

    This gives the house even more meaning. No longer “kid stuff” – this home represents their very real love and life together.

  • Pg 12 — After they’re unable to have a baby and Ellie is heartbroken over it, Carl gives her the childhood Adventure Book, which brings her back to life and to him. Planning their adventure gives her hope again.

    This gives the adventure even more profound meaning; it saves Ellie.

Regret is a strong, emotional motivator

  • Pg 13 – One day Carl realizes thirty years have passed and their dream has fallen by the wayside. Never fulfilled. He buys two tickets to South America to finally deliver his wife’s great wish. But before they can take the trip, Ellie falls ill and dies.

    This is an emotional gut punch, and it’s worth noting how much more devastating it is because of the lift before the crash. It makes the fall feel farther. Consider what it would have felt like if Carl didn’t buy the tickets before Ellie became sick. We’d still feel it – but not as much. This way it’s not just bad, it’s tragic.

    What does that have to do with the stakes? Making us feel bigger feelings for Carl and Ellie adds to our emotional investment in the story.

  • Pg 15 – Carl is now elderly and alone. He still lives in their house and maintains their shrine to adventure, but his life is otherwise pretty empty. He’s the last holdout in the neighborhood and developers are eager to buy him out. But this is Ellie’s house – he’s not selling.

    This shows us that nothing has changed with regard to Carl’s feelings about the house since Ellie’s passing. If anything, Carl is now stubbornly holding onto the house because it’s what he has left of Ellie.

  • Then, after an incident with the construction crew, Carl is court ordered to move to an assisted living facility. To leave their home.

    By this point we know what this house means to Carl – it represents Ellie and everything related to her. He’s not leaving it. And he still has this unfulfilled promise to her, too. There’s a moment in the script where Carl sees the Adventure Book again and it reminds him that Ellie never got to have the adventure she wanted, that he promised her.

    This is a great reminder of the stakes, at just the right moment to push him into the Act 2 Adventure.

  • Before they can take him away, Carl recommits to his vow (pg 23) and takes off in his house – lifted by thousands of helium-filled balloons. (pg 24)

If there’s a problem in Act 2, it probably started in Act 1

You might have noticed that this series has really focused on Act 1. Which makes sense, right? The real foundation of your story needs to be in place before the rest of the story can be built on top of it. And it needs to be sturdy if it’s going to support the rest of the screenplay.

And that’s true of the primary story stakes — both external and internal. Establishing strong stakes helps draw the audience in and get us emotionally invested. That makes us eager and willing to go along for the rest of the ride, and it creates the right conditions so that the later emotional payoffs can land the way you want them to and with real impact.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.