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Let’s Talk About Stakes, Baby

(And sacrifice and stupidity, while we're at it)

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Earlier this week I watched The Aeronauts, in which a headstrong scientist and a wealthy young widow team up and attempt to set a record for the highest-altitude hot-air balloon flight. Parts of the movie are riveting, like when Felicity Jones climbs the side of a hot air balloon floating 35,000 feet above the ground.

But when the characters aren’t battling weather and altitude, the movie is a decidedly, “So what?” experience. Comparing the parts of the movie that work to those that don’t got me thinking about stakes in general, and the difference between stakes and sacrifice, specifically. And how understanding the distinction can help you get and keep an audience interested in your story.

Stakes and sacrifice – what’s the difference?

So what are we talking about? Let’s define the terms:

Stakes are, in a nutshell, whatever the main character stands to gain or lose, pending the outcome of the story.

“Sacrifice,” for today’s purpose, is anything the character risks in pursuit of the story goal. I’ve referred to this idea before as “cost of participation.” (Same idea, I’m just a sucker for alliteration.)

A quick example we’re all familiar with: Die Hard

What’s at stake in the movie is the lives of the hostages, which includes John McClane’s wife. His goal is to free the hostages from the terrorists, and if he fails to do so the hostages will die.

What he sacrifices in pursuit of that goal includes his own safety. John McClane risks his life in order to save his wife and the other hostages.

Stakes and sacrifice go hand in hand

Stakes tell us what’s important to the character, since whatever is at stake is what’s motivating the character to take on the big, audacious thing he’s doing in the story. What the character is willing to sacrifice in order to pursue that goal tells us how important it is, what it’s worth to him.

John McClane is willing to take on terrorists to save his wife (stakes), and her life is worth more to him than his own (sacrifice).

It’s a subtle distinction, but one worth making. The more you understand how every part of a story works, the more you can use them to your advantage.

How stakes and sacrifice work together to grab the audience

Raise the stakes” is something you’ve probably heard screenwriters, gurus, and development execs all say. But why? What does that even mean?

It’s really about keeping the audience interested by getting them to continually re-invest in the outcome of the story. That way, they’ll read (or watch) the whole thing. If they stop caring about the outcome of the story, they’ll put down the script or turn the channel.

How do you get the reader or audience to re-invest? With escalating stakes, and stakes’s sidekick, sacrifice.

If John McClane finds out the terrorists have taken hostages – that’s bad. The lives of those hostages are at stake. If John McClane then learns his wife is among those hostages – that’s worse. He’s gone from a cop with a duty to help those whose lives are in danger, to a husband with a desire to save his own wife. That’s an escalation in stakes.

As my friend Doug Eboch once said, “The key to raising the dramatic stakes is to increase how much the character cares about the outcome of the situation.”

John McClane cares more about the outcome when it’s his wife’s life on the line. Sorry, random hostages, it’s true.

So how does “sacrifice” factor in?

Stakes are only effective if they’re meaningful. Not only does the audience need to understand WHAT will happen (how the stakes will play out), but WHY and HOW MUCH those stakes matter needs to be clear too. That gives the audience an emotional understanding of what the impact will be if those stakes come to bear. This is the part many writers miss.

One way to let the audience know just how meaningful the stakes are, is through what the character is willing to sacrifice. Remember? Sacrifice shows us what the goal is worth to him, how badly he wants it.

Sacrifice gives the feeling of higher stakes, even when the stakes themselves are the same.

If we see John McClane risking his own life – putting himself in the line of fire, walking over glass, etc. – it seems to us like he cares a lot about saving his wife. If we see John McClane unwilling to expose his presence to the terrorists, only doing things that are safely out of harm’s way, etc., then we would wonder just how much his wife means to him. The stakes are the same, but the character’s level of sacrifice conveys how valuable the stakes are to him (or not). And if he doesn’t care, we probably won’t care that much either. Which, again, means we’ll put down the script or change the channel.

Beware the stupid protagonist

Of course, there are limits to what the character will sacrifice — or there should be. Just like in real life, it’s confusing to see someone sacrifice unnecessarily or take big risks for seemingly no reason. And in a story, a protagonist who sacrifices more than what’s at stake can seem stupid and therefore unworthy of our investment.

What if John McClane saw that his wife was being detained not by terrorists, but by a security guard who wanted to check her purse before letting her leave the building. If John McClane then walked across glass, shimmied through air ducts, killed the guard’s partner, etc. in order to free her – that would be too much. The sacrifice would outweigh the stakes. We’d think John McClane’s behavior was outrageous and we probably wouldn’t want to watch that movie.

Bigger and bigger sacrifices only make sense if the stakes believably give the protagonist good reason to make those sacrifices. The audience has to want the protagonist to make those sacrifices. If we don’t see good cause for them, at a certain point we’ll want the protagonist to walk away. And if he doesn’t then we probably will. The stakes must justify the protagonist’s actions or the audience won’t become (or stay) invested in the outcome of the story.

Now that you understand the distinction, you can dissect the interplay of stakes and sacrifice in every movie you watch. (That’ll make you a really fun movie companion, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

And maybe more importantly, you can look at your own screenplay and make sure you’re leveraging both stakes and sacrifice to keep the audience invested in your hero’s fate.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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