Week 1 - Storytelling
January 6 - Introduction
January 7 - Why we like stories
January 8 - Why we tell stories
January 9 - Your perspective
January 10 - Worlds/Characters
🔒January 11 - Responsibilities
Week 2 - Characters
January 13 - Warming up
January 14 - Internal/external
January 15 - Needs/Wants
January 16 - Obstacles
January 17 - Arc
January 18 - Stakes
🔒 Week 4
🔒 Week 5
🔒 Week 6
🔒 Week 7
🔒 Week 8
🔒 Week 9
🔒 Week 10
🔒 Week 11
🔒 Week 12
Hour 312-336 | Stakes
Over the last few days we thought about obstacles a character can face leading to choices they have to make and the arc they follow. Each choice a character makes has potential risks, impacts, and rewards involved with it. Those can be called the stakes.
The stakes of a story are summed up in one question, why do we care? Why do I care if Aslan dies? You have to establish what's at risk if the characters fail. If the stakes are low, usually it's not a very entertaining story. But the higher the stakes are, the more tension you get, the more enjoyable it is.
A good example of building stakes is Jurassic Park. The stakes are pretty high in that. If you fail the dinosaurs will eat you, that's pretty clear. You have to be as the audience, gripped by those stakes. You should be saying "I don't know what's going to happen."
Early on in the arc, I'd say that the stakes wouldn't seem as extreme, maybe. As the story progresses the stakes raise. When I write a story I have a lot of conversations about how big the stakes need to be. Does it need to be life and death? Or is it better if it's just, you know, for a comedy sometimes you want it just to be about the character's reputation or something smaller so that you're not bringing too much gravity to a situation.
The important thing is, to the character, it should feel like the world to them. Even if it's just a talent show, you want to show to the audience that this talent show is everything to the character. I think by the end of Akeelah and the Bee, we all want Akeelah to win that spelling bee and to be accepted by everybody. Anything that is happening with your character, I think it's really important to feel the emotional connection of that. If I don't feel it, they're not there.
Stakes add drama and weight to any choice and can be divided into three categories, internal stakes, external stakes, and philosophical stakes.
The external stakes are, literally, what's going on in the world. Are they lost? Are they being chased by burglars? Physically, what will happen to them or to the world if they fail. A great example of external stakes is from Brave. By giving her mom the cake that the witch made, Merida turns her mother into a bear. That is an immediate, physical consequence of her choice that impacts both them as well as the story itself. Then, if Merida doesn't decipher and solve the witch's riddle, her mom will become a full bear and be lost forever.
Internal stakes usually are psychological. What's going on for the character emotionally or mentally? What are they potentially going to lose? What will they potentially gain? Why is it important that they gain that thing? Why is it sad or difficult if they lose that thing? Asking those questions will help you figure out what those stakes really are. A good example of internal stakes is from the first Toy Story. Throughout the film, Woody is forced to confront his own insecurity and pride, embrace Buzz as a friend, and learn to share Andy's attention. What's at stake for him, internally, is all of his relationships with the other toys and his very sense of self.
Philosophical stakes are what is impacting the world. What is making the values or the belief system of this world change? Or not change. And what does it mean if it does or doesn't change? For philosophical stakes, I think Lord of the Rings is a great example. If Frodo doesn't throw the ring into the fire, then Middle Earth is gonna be ruled under evil forever. When you watch movies that have this pitch battle between ideas, concepts, good versus evil, those kinds of things are philosophical.
Okay, let's summarize. External stakes, the possible physical impacts of a choice or action. Internal stakes, the mental or emotional consequences of a choice, and philosophical stakes. What are the underlying ideas or values in your story? The distinction between internal, external, and philosophical stakes is tricky.
So, in this exercise let's get some practice thinking about this using the stories you love.
Part A: Return to the main characters from your three favorite stories.
Part B: Think about a difficult choice you had to make in your own life. What was at stake?
Part C: Return to one of the obstacles your character might face from the previous exercise. Now think of the choice this obstacle forces them to make. Answer the following:
You can submit your ideas in the Comments section below, or write them down in your story journal.