The Importance of Stakes in Screenwriting
Having been in the script consultancy business for some time, if I had to name the single most significant factor as to why a spec screenplay does or doesn’t get picked up, there’s one in my opinion that towers head and shoulders above the rest… a lack of stakes in each and every scene.
Even if a spec script has stakes in the overall concept, they then often fail to follow through and contain something at stake for the characters in each scene. This often results in scenes full of inconsequential conversations. Cue another PASS grade.
Writers are constantly being told stakes-related cliches like “Make every line of dialogue count” and “If a scene can be taken out and the story still makes sense, take it out”, and yet still thousands of scripts are registered every year at the WGA containing scenes with absolutely zero stakes.
Why is this when the majority of these same writers have attended screenwriting seminars and courses, and read the top books cover to cover? The reason is because much of the advice given on scenes focuses on a “conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist” or “one character wanting something and the other trying to stop them”, but this misses the point.
Where’s the protagonist against an antagonist conflict in the scene in Whiplash in which Andrew and Nicole chat and eat pizza on a first date? Or the scene near the beginning of Nightcrawler in which Louis happens to pass by a car wreck and pulls over?
The truth is, there is no protagonist vs. antagonist set up in these, or many scenes like them, in movies and professional screenplays. What there is, however, is something at stake in all of these scenes, and that’s what I want to explore in this article — a more hands-on, practical way of addressing stakes in a screenplay by adding them to all the characters lives and then applying them to every scene.
But first, let’s take a look at what exactly we mean by the term “stakes”.
What Exactly Are Stakes?
In a nutshell, stakes are the reason why readers want to keep turning the page and why audiences want to keep watching. If the process of writing a great script can be boiled down to putting a protagonist in a hole and watching them get out of it, then the stakes are the reason why the protagonist wants to get out the hole. And these stakes should apply to the overall concept, through to each act, each sequence, and finally each scene.
Overall, we need to know that something is at risk for the protagonist if they stay in the hole — namely that they will die — either literally or figuratively. I like to call these “death stakes” as there’s nothing more important in movie stakes terms than death. In Action/Adventures, Thrillers and Horrors, the protagonist is usually mainly at risk of physically dying, while in Dramas and Comedies, the protagonist ultimately risks figuratively dying.
And this is what’s lacking in many spec scripts — a sense that the protagonist will either literally or figuratively die that permeates every single scene of the script. Without solid “death stakes” such as these — scene after scene, beat after beat — a screenplay is always going to struggle to engage the reader.
Applying Stakes To All Your Characters’ Lives
The first thing that needs to be done when considering how to add stakes to every scene in a script, is to make sure that each character first has a major problem/goal. Many spec scripts have a rocking concept with high stakes attached, and yet still fail to engage the reader simply because many or all of the characters don’t really have anything at stake going on in their lives.
In reality, every character in a well crafted screenplay has a problem or a goal with high stakes attached, not just the protagonist and antagonist. Let’s take a quick look at the three major characters in a script’s “triangle of conflict” and then also at the minor characters in relation to stakes.
The first piece in the triangle of conflict is the protagonist. They should obviously have a major problem in their life that they need to solve or else risk literally or figuratively dying, and these are the overall stakes of the movie.
In The Revenant we want to know whether Hugh Glass is going to be able to make it out of the wilderness alive. What’s at stake is his literal death.
In Inside Out, we want to find out whether Joy can rebalance Riley’s mind. What’s at stake is the risk of Riley figuratively dying inside.
Whether they’re literal or figurative death stakes, this is what should drive the protagonist forward and motivate their actions throughout the script.
Secondly, we have the antagonist and they too should have high stakes attached to a goal in direct opposition to the protagonist’s that drives their actions. The difference is, only the antagonist (and maybe their associates) care about whether they achieve this goal. We don’t care because we’re rooting for the protagonist.
In It’s A Wonderful Life, Potter is desperate to buy up as much of Bedford Falls and make as much money as possible. From his point of view, he has something big at stake and believes he’ll figuratively die if he doesn’t achieve it.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren is just as committed to destroying the Resistance as they are to defeating the Empire. He has huge literal death stakes attached to his goal but we’re, of course, hoping he doesn’t succeed.
The final character that makes up the triangle of conflict is the actual Stakes Character — the person in the script who personifies what’s at stake for the protagonist. This character is who the protagonist and antagonist are both fighting over but, again, they have their own problem/goal which is usually in harmony with the protagonist’s.
In Insidous, parents Josh and Renai want the same thing as the Stakes Character, their son — to save him literally dying at the hands of The Further.
In Annie Hall, the Stakes Character, Annie, wants the same thing as the protagonist, Alvy — to fall in love — and save her from figuratively dying.
Finally, every minor character in your screenplay also needs a goal or a problem with stakes attached. They don’t have to be as big as the three main characters listed above, but they still need to be there.
Let’s take a look at American Beauty as an example. Every single character in this film has a problem with stakes attached that they care about:
Lester is a loser in a dead-end job and has a family that hates him. What’s at stake is his life? Will he turn it around?
Lester’s wife, Carolyn, is also stuck in a failing marriage and is petrified she’ll never sell another house again. What’s at stake is her life too? Will she sort it out?
Lester’s daughter, Jane, feels deeply alienated from her family and from life in general, until she meets Ricky. What’s at stake is their relationship. Will she find love and make something of herself?
Lester’s Stakes Character, Angela, thinks she’s better than everyone, but beneath all the braggadocio is deeply insecure. What’s at stake is her sense of self worth. Will she find it?
Lester’s neighbor, Ricky, lives in his own little world filming Jane with a handheld camera, and has an abusive father. What’s at stake is his future? Will he be able to escape and be happy with Jane?
Ricky’s father, Colonel Fitts, struggles to cope with civilian life in suburbia and has homosexual yearnings he’s trying to suppress. What’s at stake is his life? Will he ever let go of the past and embrace who he really is?
Ricky’s mother, Barbara, is mentally ill and living in an almost vegetative state. What’s at stake is her life? But we know she’s lost forever.
Now take a look at your screenplay, treatment, or synopsis. Does every single character from the protagonist, to the antagonist, to the Stakes Character, to the minor characters, each have either a goal or a problem with high stakes attached? Yes, the protagonist may be the hero who we’re all rooting for to succeed regarding the overall stakes of the movie against the antagonist, but it’s vital to not leave out all the other characters.
So many spec screenplays do a great job of building up a strong goal for the protagonist to achieve, but then forget about everyone else. This results in the characters coming off as one-dimensional and consequently not feeling “real”, as they don’t appear to have the human qualities of wants and needs. It also means that, if the protagonist has a goal with something at stake, as soon as he or she is in a scene talking to someone else who doesn’t, there’s an imbalance and the tension between opposing underlying goals is lost.
Brainstorm possibilities and assign each character in your script a goal and/or a problem. But don’t just make them random problems. Give them a relevance that relates back to what’s at stake in the protagonist’s overall goal and the theme of the movie.
In American Beauty, for example, Ricky doesn’t have a problem completely unrelated to the theme of alienation in modern life, such as wanting to lose his virginity. He’s as disaffected and lost in the same suburban lifestyle as all the other characters, but deals with it in a different way. His father, on the other hand, wants to control and suppress, while Jane wants to get away and Angela wants to fit in and and be liked.
Applying Stakes To Every Scene
Once you’ve applied a major problem with stakes attached to every character in the script, it’s then just a case of making sure that each scene either brings them closer to or pushes them further away from achieving it. The best way to do this is not by asking “Will someone be able to understand the story if I take this scene out”, but:
“What’s at stake for these characters in this specific scene, and how does this relate back to the overall stakes they have during the course of the movie?”
In the opening scene of Whiplash, hard-ass tutor, Fletcher, interrupts fledgling jazz drummer, Andrew, while practicing. We immediately know what’s at stake in this scene for both characters. Will Andrew impress Fletcher enough to make it into his band? Will Fletcher find another star pupil he can bully into greatness?
These stakes also relate back to the overall stakes of the film. Will Andrew ever become a jazz legend? Will Fletcher ever “create” a jazz legend through his drill sergeant teaching methods?
Let’s take a look at the scenes leading up to the midpoint in The Ring remake and see how all the scene stakes relate back to the overall stakes (Will the evil Samara ever be stopped?) in every single scene. Note also how every scene pulls the characters further away from their overall goals rather than closer to solving them.
Noah buys cigarettes. In the security camera he sees his face is distorted.
(Scene stakes: Is this another sign he’s closer to death?)
Rachel, our protagonist, arrives home and wakes up the babysitter who was watching the tape.
(Scene stakes: Is the babysitter going to die?)
Rachel watches her son, Stakes Character Aiden, sleep. She closes the door.
(Scene stakes: Is Aiden safe?)
Rachel calls Ruth and asks her to watch Aiden. Rachel starts coughing and then pulls string out from her mouth. Water comes out the telephone receiver.
(Scene stakes: What’s happening to Rachel? Is she next?)
Rachel goes to check on Aiden to see a girl with long black hair sitting on a chair. The girl grabs her arm.
(Scene stakes: Will Rachel survive?)
Rachel wakes up from the dream, but she has a bruise on her arm where the girl grabbed her. She gets up and goes into the living room only to find Aiden has just watched the video. The phone rings and Rachel screams, but it’s Noah. He finally says he believes her. She says Aiden just watched the tape.
(Scene stakes: Is Aiden, the Stakes Character, now going to be next?)
How about some more subtle examples, as these tend to be where aspiring screenwriters come unstuck. It is fine to include subtle scenes of conversation in a screenplay, but if you look at these types of scenes in movies, they’re never just “casual talk”. They always involve characters with something at stake going on in their lives, and something always happens that relates back to these stakes.
The Truman Show
Early in act two, Truman sits on the beach with his friend, Marlon. Truman says that he is being set up. Marlon says that he has never found a place like this, and the scene ends with Truman saying he is going away for a while.
What’s at stake overall in the movie is the question of whether Truman will ever escape the island. What’s at stake in the scene relates directly back to this by showing Truman’s growing awareness of the truth and his resolve to leave the island. He is one step closer to achieving his goal.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
In the middle of act one, Indy celebrates with Marcus over the fact the army intelligence guys want Indy to get to the ark before the Nazis. In a spec script this may well be as far as this scene would go — Indy celebrates with Marcus. The end.
In the actual scene, however, Indy then says he has to find Ravenwood, his former Professor who might know where it is. What’s at stake overall in the movie is whether Indy will get to the Ark before the Nazis, and this scene pushes him closer by revealing what he has to do next to achieve it.
Near the end of act two, Miles and Jack sit by a beach and Miles complains how insignificant he is. Jack, though, is optimistic.
Again, this isn’t just two guys hanging out and shooting the breeze. What’s at stake overall for Miles is the question of whether he’ll ever get over his ex and move on with Maya, and this scene reinforces his (and our) pessimism of that ever happening. We see him, therefore, take one step back from achieving his goal. Jack, on the other hand, is optimistic, and we see that from his point of view his goal/problem of hooking Miles up with Maya is still very much alive.
Try watching movies with a different eye from now on. As each scene unfolds, ask yourself “What’s at stake for these characters in this specific scene, and how does this relate back to the overall stakes they have during the course of the movie?”
Then, having applied stakes to all the characters’ lives in your script, go through each scene and ask yourself the same question. If there is nothing at stake in a scene that relates back to the overall stakes of the movie, then it probably needs reworking.
Rather than approaching each scene with a focus on conflict between a protagonist and antagonist, focus on what’s at stake in their lives, however subtle that may be, and you’ll be on the right track to turning a PASS grade into a RECOMMEND.