Jul 28


At ground zero your story is about your Main Character (MC) who has a goal.  How compelling, gripping, and powerful your story is depends on two things: (1) what your Main Character has at stake in pursuit of the goal and (2) how much the audience cares about this character.


To discover the value of the quest, answer one simple question: what happens if this character fails?  If the answer is “not much,” or “nothing important,” or something like “he/she will be disappointed” then you have a story which is of little value and minute significance. Translation: it’s not particularly absorbing.


Consider your Major Dramatic Question (MDQ), the uncertainty you place in your audience’s mind as soon as possible or the problem, which will take the whole script to answer satisfactorily.  Consider a MDQ like these:


Will the MC find the treasure?


Will the MC fall in love?


Will the MC get even with the person who “done him wrong”?


The audience’s response to these problems is likely to be, “Who’s gives a damn?”


The less consequential your MDQ is the more meaningless your story.


Examine your MDQ and see how it measures up.

It’s going to take millions of dollars to make a film of your script.  Why would anyone want to spend that kind of money on a story that changes very little in the life of the main character or the world at large?


You will improve the salability of your script by understanding what’s at stake and by upping the stakes.


Life and death are usually some of the most powerful of stakes.  Even then these consequences can be very limited and their influence slight if only a very few people are ultimately effected by it.


The stakes of your story operate on two levels, (1) the public and (2) the personal.  In the beginning many writers focus their thinking on only one level.  By itself, neither level has the power both have when applied jointly.




What the Main Character initially wants, the love of a desirable person, to find lost treasure, to get from point A to point B, or whatever, is often rooted in a very narrow perspective, that of the Main Character alone.  This goal may well, and many times does, change in the course of the story.  Regardless of the Main Character’s original objective it is the audience’s response that is the key to the stories success more so than the particular goal.


Goals great or small connect with an audience primarily based on how the audience feels about the Main Character.   Sympathetic characters draw the audience in and make them both identify with and care for such characters.


The writer should find a way to depict something benevolent, congenial, compassionate, and/or likable about the Main Character as soon as possible.  It is the audience’s understanding and identification with the Main Character that makes whatever the MC seeks to be of value to the audience.  The simple true is we care about the things and the people whom we know, understand, and care about.  If the audience doesn’t know or care about the MC, then they couldn’t care less what’s important to the MC.


It doesn’t matter if your Main Character is a criminal, a fool, dirty, or disgusting if the audience can see more to this character than the negative, and, in fact, know endearing, positive aspects of this character, a sympathetic character can be created.


This is especially true when creating your villains.   A well-rounded heavy is a character who is not bad all the way through but someone who also has good points.   And when you have a villain who is sympathetic it deepens the conflict of the story because it’s no longer a simplistic clash of right vs. wrong.  This complicated and more realistic conflict also gives the writer more options.





At the public level stories deal with broader subjects and focus beyond the individual Main Character.  These are stories with possible dire consequences to:


  1. the family (real family or family of close friends, associates, or improvised family)
  2. the community (tribe, village, town, state, region)
  3. the nation
  4. the world
  5. the solar system
  6. the galaxy
  7. the universe


These stories are still about choices an individual makes, but the actions and decisions have powerful impacts for good or for ill on a larger world.


Synchronizing Personal and Public Stakes


When what the MC wants at a personal level connects with a public goal, the significance of the private stakes is automatically raised.  If finding the treasure or falling in love also impacts a wider purpose (saving the family or uniting the nation), suddenly the MC’s goal is magnified exponentially because of its wider ramifications.



Conflict Between Public and Personal Stakes


When what the MC wants personally conflicts with a greater public good, then the consequences of every action the MC takes is magnified throughout the whole story.  If, in the end, the MC has a chance to win his primary objective but at a cost of a significant public goal, and if the audience is torn as to which object it wants to see realized, the writer has been able to engage the audience at a very fundamental level.


Compound The Stakes


Sometimes it is not possible to convincingly intensify either the private or the public stakes.  In such a case a better strategy might be to simply attach other problems (perhaps related, perhaps not) to the original difficulty.  The sheer weight of the tribulations will frequently serve to raise the stakes.


One way to compound the stakes is to suddenly shorten an already established and dangerously tight time frame for the Main Character.


Another method of increasing the difficulty for your MC is to diminish available resources.  A sidekick, confidant, or indispensable guide can be eliminated (lost, incapacitated, killed, or proven to be the very opposite of what this person was perceived as being).


Things That Matter


The story telling arts are one of the primary ways every culture reinforces its values.  These values, these truths, are part of what attracts us to stories in the form of books, plays, and films.  Classic stories in every form are those which move audiences and even challenge them to live better lives with renewed understanding of the things which make us human as our best.


Writers whose aim is revealing to the public all the ugliness, filth, and meaningless of life are usually disappointed at how little resonance their tales have with audiences.


Conversely those who focus on those aspects of bravery, friendship, fidelity, honesty, kindness, love, generosity, respect, and trust, often discover they have struck notes with audiences well beyond what the writer ever suspected.


Stories of seemingly trivial events can be magnified when the MC represents the greater values of human life in the face of overwhelming odds and in spite of all logical arguments to the contrary.  Those who believe when all the others have lost their faith, those who keep their word when it would be so easy to do otherwise, and those who are steadfast in the most basic of higher values even in the face of death are all characters audiences admire, identify with, and care about profoundly.


If you can make your MC stand for a key human value (and there are others beyond those listed above) in the actions and decision made in the story, you will elevate both your character and the stakes of your story.


How To Raise The Stakes


The simplest key to raising the stakes is to significantly increase the appalling outcome if the Main Character fails to reach his/her main objective.  Consider consequence on both the personal and public levels.  Keep in mind how important it is for the audience to care for and identify with the MC.


Consider synchronizing or conflicting the private and public goals to maximum effect.


The writer’s task is always to make it harder, never easier, for the MC to achieve the manifest target.  By making the MC suffer, and suffer greatly, the MC becomes nobler and more heroic in persisting in the mission of the story.  Compounding the MC’s problems is a sure fire way of doing just that.


Does your MC stand for a greater human value?  Do the actions and decisions the MC makes reflect this value?  Doing so insures a more significant story.


In the end you will have to come to grips with the reasons that drove you to want to write this particular story in the first place.  What was it that this story says for you?  What is the point of the story?  This tale is a parable that, at some level, speaks for you in saying something that you believe very deeply.  What is that basic truth?


Knowing what it is you are really saying with your story (your theme) will at the same time give you distance from your characters to enable them to suffer greatly and empower you to create the most forceful story you can to make the point you want to make.

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