October 2012 What’s at Stake Here?
Imagine a poker game with four players. The first three players take their turns by not betting any money. The fourth player puts down $10. Suddenly, this game has stakes. Each player meets the bet, and one may even see their ten dollars and raise another five. Now, the stakes are even higher, there’s something to lose, and the game is more exciting. The same applies to storytelling. When there is nothing for a character to lose, the story will be less exciting than it would be if there was something at stake.
Not only does your protagonist need a goal to reach, a desire to reach that goal, and obstacles that get in the way, they also need something to lose if they don’t reach their goal. Let’s say a character’s goal is to get from New York City to Los Angeles. It’s a reasonable goal, but we’re not even close to having a story yet. So then, let’s say the character needs to get to LA, and they want to go there to see a loved one. Now they have a goal and a desire, and they still need an obstacle(s). What if the character has no money? What if they’re on the run from the law, and cannot risk being caught? What if all of the airline workers are on strike? Pick one (or more), and now the character has an obstacle that interferes with them reaching their goal. Many writers stop here, but stories become much more interesting for the audience if there is something at stake for the character. What if the character wants get to Los Angeles to see their loved one–to stop them from getting married to someone else. If they don’t make it to LA in time, they lose their chance of being with the love of their life. This is the character’s stake. It gives the story a sense of urgency and excitement, and it allows the audience to connect with the character and their goal and desires.
So the question stands… What’s at stake here?