The most common issue that most script readers have with the dozens of screenplays they read and reject every week is lack of stakes. If the character and story stakes in your screenplay aren't up to par, it won't advance up that ladder to be considered for contest wins, fellowships, options, representation, and acquisitions. So how do you go about raising the stakes in your script?
Conflict is inextricably linked with stakes. The more conflict you have in your script, the more stakes there are.
Here's an analogy that showcases the conflict and stakes throughout the beginning, middle, and end of a story — the first act is having your characters chased up a tall and imposing tree, the second act is setting that tree on fire and the characters trying to figure out a way to escape, and the third act is how they go about doing that.
It's all about conflict, right?
The characters feel threatened enough to seek solace in a towering tree. When they reach the top, they look down to see the threat that chased them up there in the first place (antagonist, villain, or situation). They clearly can't climb back down, and they are so high up they can't possibly consider jumping — and even if they did, there is still the threat below.
To make matters worse, their temporary sanctuary (the tree) is set on fire.
The fire slowly burns higher and higher and higher, scorching their feet and weakening the tree. So now they not only have the threat below and the fear of dangling high above the hard ground — the darn tree is going to either burn and fall down — plunging them to their deaths —or the fire itself is going to burn them alive.
While that may seem like enough, with screenwriting, you need to up those stakes even more to get the proper notice you need to break through those Hollywood walls and have a go at a career in screenwriting.
Continuing with this analogy, here's an example of raising those stakes.
Your characters are dangling from that towering tree, looking down in fear as the threat that chased them up there awaits them below. They see and feel the flames of the fire inching closer and closer to them. They can't jump to another tree or structure. They can't climb down. What do they do?
If that wasn't enough, the threat down below suddenly begins to throw rocks at them. Some of the rocks are small but sharp. They hurt. Other rocks are bigger and more threatening. One perfectly aimed toss will send them falling — towards the threat below and into the fire as well. The rocks create tension and terror as they come closer and closer to hitting the intended target.
Then the wind suddenly begins to gust, making the tree sway back and forth, forcing your characters to continually adjust their grip. The wind blows oxygen into the burning fire below, fueling it more and more.
Your characters decide to climb down into the fire, hoping to get close enough to the ground to jump — knowing full well that the threat will be waiting for them. But it's worth the risk.
There's only one problem. The sharp tree branches have snagged the clothes of your characters. They can't climb down. If they try to fix the snag, they'll risk losing their grip amidst the sway of the tree in the harsh winds, the constant bombardment of rocks big and small, and the now growing flames that burn their hands with every gust of wind.
That is what upping the stakes means. You take an already intense situation (threat below, stuck in a tree, and the tree is on fire) and throw more and more conflict into the mix. And each of those conflicts has to have repercussions that the characters must face.
And when you've added more to the mix (rocks, wind, growing fire because of the wind), you give them momentary hope and then crush that hope with even more conflict.
Now your characters look down to see that each time the tree sways one direction, they are within jumping distance to another tree.
Beyond that tree, though, is a cliff that drops hundreds of feet below. But who cares? There's hope, right? They climb higher to release their clothes from the sharp tree branches. As the rocks bombard them from below, they time the sway of the tree until...
They jump towards the tree hanging above the edge of the cliff. It's an easy jump. They've made it. They grasp onto the thick branches of the new tree. But their celebration is short-lived as the wood of the tree crumbles beneath their grasp. Thousands of wood termites escape from within the tree, creeping and crawling over the limbs and faces of your characters.
The snaps of the deteriorated tree branches echo into the valley below as the characters scramble to find any piece of solid wood to cling to.
No such luck. The once savior of a tree collapses into itself as your characters hang on for their lives. What strong wood of the tree that is left plunges over the edge of the cliff — your characters now dangling over a seemingly endless drop.
But wait, they haven't fallen to their deaths yet. They may be covered in biting termites (who continue to eat away at the wood as well, mind you) but the inner core of the tree is still strong, holding them in place above the drop below them.
Your characters look at each other and smile briefly, until...
The ominous laughter of the threat they thought was left behind resonates. Your characters look over in horror to see the threat staring back at them — a fist full of rocks, big and small. In the other fist, they hold a torch, burning violently. The threat gazes at them as it lowers the flame towards the dry and crumbled remains of the tree that holds them up from the terror of falling to their deaths below.
The dry wood of the tree ignites — especially as the blowing wind fuels it even more. The termites escape from the fire towards your characters, covering them. If matters couldn't get any worse, the threat begins to bombard them with rocks once again.
Your characters are ready to give up and die until they look down to see that a raging river flows below them. It's a long drop, and there's no telling if they'd even hit the water, but they have no other choice.
They let go, falling in the air for what seems like an eternity until...
The cold water offers instant relief. They've survived the fall. The cold water cools their hot skin that was about to burn. And the water instantly washes away the thousands of termites that were creeping and crawling all over them.
They look up to see the threat looking down on them with a defeated face. They've escaped. However, they suddenly see the threat's defeated scowl turn into an evil and menacing smile as it looks past them.
Your characters look forward and are shocked to see the raging white waters that they are being catapulted towards. The current is too strong for them to swim to safety — sucking them into a wet void of twists, turns, and drops amidst humongous sharp rocks.
Even if they survive those raging rapids, they see a heartbreaking sight at the end of them — a waterfall dropping to unknown depths below.
Their harrowing adventure of survival has only just begun.
That is how you truly up the stakes in your screenplays.
Here are three places to accomplish that within your script.
1. Within the Concept and Characters
Whatever genre you are writing in, the concept itself has to showcase a conflict-riddled scenario.
In Jaws, it wasn't enough that a shark was terrorizing a local island community. The chief of police trying to stop it was afraid of the water. The threat was taking place during the tourist season, which meant the chief had to protect hundreds upon hundreds more. The mayor of the community didn't want the chief to close the beaches. When a shark was caught, hope was lost — it wasn't the shark they were looking for. The chief that was afraid of the water had to head out into the ocean to hunt down the shark. The boat they had to accomplish that wasn't big enough and began to sink after being attacked by the shark.
You have to find concepts that offer enough stakes and conflict where the story can be sold on the premise — and the characters within — alone. That creates an ongoing feeling of anticipation within the script reader as they know what's coming and wonder how your characters will survive, conquer, or overcome.
2. Within the Scene Description and Structure
The reason why screenwriters are always told that "less is more" is not because the powers that be are too lazy to read and have short attention spans. It's because, in order to create a cinematic experience while reading a screenplay, readers need to feel a particular type of progression, pacing, and build-up. They can't do that when you are going on and on describing specific elements and visuals. They need to be able to process an image that they need to see through their own mind's eye almost instantaneously as they move onto the next — no different than watching a movie unfold before their eyes on the big screen.
Therefore, every line in the script needs to matter. Every line of scene description needs to move the story forward. Every line needs to build up to moments where the character either fails, prevails or faces another conflict, be it internal or external in whatever genre.
3. Within Each and Every Scene
Much like the way scene descriptions are written and structured, each and every scene that you write must also embrace the "less is more" mantra, be present for a reason, and build and build and build towards the climax.
If you look above at the analogy we used, you'll see that there was constant forward motion in the story. And each forward motion was the direct result of conflict after conflict after conflict being thrown at the characters.
While Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is often perceived as one of the lesser installments of the franchise, the action sequences are masterfully riddled with mounting conflict and high stakes. After a harrowing escape through an underground mine car railway, Indiana Jones, Short Round, and Willie cross an ancient rope bridge. Short Round and Willie are ahead as Indy takes on some pursuing bad guys. When they reach the end of the bridge, they are confronted by Mola Ram and his minions. Indy is halfway through the bridge when he sees that Mola Ram has his friends. Willie yells, "Watch your back!" Indy looks behind him and sees that on the other side of the bridge from whence he came, more bad guys are coming towards him. He can't go forward. He can't go back. If he does, the stones will be taken. If he doesn't, his friends will be killed, as will he.
To make matters worse, man-eating crocodiles swim in the water below, so there's no escape over the bridge and into the water.
As the bad guys close in, Indy raises his machete towards the rope bridge, threatening to cut it down. Mola Ram leads Willie and Short Round onto the bridge, thinking it will thwart Indy's plans by putting his friends at risk. Indy speaks to Short Round in Chinese, telling him to hang on. He begins to cut the rope, forcing the bridge to snap in half, sending everyone falling.
They survive as the rope bridge hangs from the cliff. But there are still bad guys on that bridge and Indy must fend them off. Mola Ram is then the only one in Indy's way from escaping the situation. To make matters even more worse, Mola Ram's men appear from the other side of the valley and begin to shoot arrows at him.
No scene should be wasted. No scene should stop such momentum. No scene should cheat the audience of the ride that you've put them on — whether it's the result of constant internal conflicts (heartbreak, depression, anger, fear, regret) or external conflicts (trees, rocks, fire, termites, raging rapids).
Raising the stakes in your screenplay is simple and easy — conflict. The more conflict you have and the more the characters have to lose as a result of that conflict, the more the stakes are raised. And the more the stakes are raised, the more invested readers and audiences will be in your story.
As you conjure these conflicts to throw at your characters, you need to ask yourself these questions:
- What do my characters stand to lose through the central conflict?
- What do they stand to gain?
- What is at stake (freedom, lives, relationships)?
- What are the consequences of each and every action they take in reaction to the conflict at hand?
The answers to those questions will come after you've introduced the next conflict that they are forced to deal with. As you keep adding more and more, those answers will get better and better. Before you know it, you'll have a screenplay that has significant stakes from beginning, middle, to end.
Read ScreenCraft's 4 Keys to Help Screenwriters Write Page-Turners!
Oh, and by the way — your characters in that analogy? They survived. But not before falling down an endless waterfall with sharp rocks jutting out from beneath the water, only for them to discover that they've drifted into a waterhole infested with flesh-eating piranhas and are surrounded on land by hundreds — no, thousands — of rattlesnakes from a nearby breeding den.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies