Category: stakes

Protecting the Stakes

About the reaction Thor has to everything in Ragnarok, no matter how dramatic.

Stakes are important to storytelling. They tie the emotional throughline together with the plot. The stakes, generally, are what the protagonist wants and the plot is the journey they take to getting whatever that is. Sometimes the stakes are as simple as a character that wants to find their bicycle, other times the stakes are as grand as wanting to save the world from destruction by a giant sky beam. In short, stakes often generate the conflict of the story, which in turn equates to dramatic heft.

It’s easy to undercut the stakes of a story with ill-advised decisions, or poorly timed humor. Let’s explore a couple of ways in which movies have undercut their own dramatic heft, intentionally or not.

Humor Undercuts Drama

Once again, I’m going to say something controversial, yet brave: THOR: RAGNAROK could have been better.

It wouldn’t have even been hard! THOR: RAGNAROK suffers from a common issue in a lot of stories, but especially Marvel movies. Whenever something dramatic happens, like when the entirety of Asgard is wiped out, the dramatic tension and sense of stakes are run over by jokes.

By the end of the movie, Thor has lost his three closest friends (the Warriors Three), his father, learned of a long-lost sister that he must find a way to kill, been imprisoned as a gladiator, and decided to destroy his home planet in order to save his people. And yet, the movie never stops cracking jokes to allow us to feel any of this drama. In this Screen Rant article written last year on this very topic, Odin’s death was even reshot so as not to make the audience feel too badly.

It’s one thing to want to have fun at the movies–that’s important–but storytelling is inherently an emotional connection between creator and audience, or story and audience. If you don’t allow the audience to feel what the characters feel, even if that’s sadness or anger, then you’re not allowing them to fully connect and empathize with the story. Aside from that, for me, it takes me out of the story. If the characters don’t care enough to feel upset at what’s happening, then why should I?

Lack of Consequences

In order for an audience to fully connect with a story, the consequences of the stakes must be clear and, this is the important part, followed through on. If the stakes are that a character might die, and then the character dies, it undercuts the stakes for them to later return. Looking at you every Marvel movie ever.

This can go for lower stakes, too. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK undermines its stakes when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant only for it to kill all of them. What was the point of the journey that Indiana Jones and Marion went on to stop them? They ended up being completely inconsequential to the climax.

If a story sets up the consequences for a particular set of stakes, it needs to follow through on them unless there is a twist that leads to a new understanding of the stakes, or introduces even higher stakes. FRINGE does this well in its second season when you finally come to learn the consequences of Walter’s actions around Peter and the alternate universe. We think the stakes are that if Walter doesn’t open the door to the other universe then Peter will die. In reality, opening that door actually leads to much bigger stakes when he essentially kidnaps Peter and then the universes start to collide.

***

Stakes are the spokes around which stories are propelled. Without them, stories can ground to a halt, losing the audience. Maintain their inherent drama and follow-through on their promise, otherwise risk alienating your audience and breaking their trust.

Dramatic Stakes

Recently my girlfriend and I were discussing the television show Beauty and the Beast. It was something she had just gotten into and she was complaining about the second season of the show. Basically, after a solid first season the show decided to reset the status quo (as television shows often do between seasons or, sometimes, between episodes). This upset her because it felt like the world no longer had stakes.

Dexter is another perfect example for this. Outside of the end of the fourth season each season finale ended with Dexter doing something that would reset the status quo. First season he killed the Ice Truck Killer before Deb could find out his secret. Next season he killed Doakes before anyone could find out his secret. Third season was Miguel Prada. Then came the Trinity season. All bets were off. Finally the show took a chance, moved forward, and it was awesome. But then the fifth season shied away from risks. There was another opportunity at the end of that season to push forward even harder – Deb would finally find out what Dexter was. But the show bitched out, she let him go without learning his identity, and the sixth season was back to square one. I stopped watching after that, but I’ve heard it was steadily downhill.

My point is that as a writer you want to create the most dramatic stakes possible. Write yourself into a corner. Personally I try to put my main protagonist in the worst possible situation by the end of the second act. The reason is not only to keep the audience entertained and guessing (how will [protagonist] get out of this?) but to really see what my protagonist is made of. This is part of the reason I don’t normally outline too far past the end of the second act. The characters are already fairly well established so I like to let them take me where they want to go in the search for a resolution.

Admittedly, this isn’t the easiest route to take. And sometimes it doesn’t work. My last project I completely rewrote the third act, using what I had gleaned from the characters more as a framework than as a final outcome. I think it’s much stronger because of that.

Stories should constantly be surprising. Often that means letting your characters get themselves into impossible situations, then struggle to get themselves out in creative ways. I am a firm believer that the worst thing that can happen should happen. This differs from character to character. One characters worst case scenario might be their mother dying. Another’s might be losing their favorite necklace. Doesn’t matter. It needs to happen. They need to deal with it. And they sometimes need to fail.

Everyone wants a happy ending. I get that. I like them myself, if they make sense. But, and I would say moreso than down endings, happy endings need to be earned. Not necessarily in a pyrrhic way, but earned through the characters digging themselves out of a hole and showing conviction for what they want. If they can’t do that, then either they don’t deserve it or they’re not the character you want them to be and they need to be rewritten.

Breaking Bad was great at this. Every week the stakes would be raised and you would ask, “How is Walt/Jesse/Skyler/Hank going to handle this?” And every week they would find creative ways to solve their problems, or die trying. It was riveting every time.

Don’t think, though, that these things can be random. Just like a happy ending needs to be earned, so too does a character being at their lowest point. If a character’s worst fear is their mother dying, but their mother is happy and healthy all story and then dies randomly it feels cheap. That character needs to be agonizing over a cure for their sick mother, and then what they hoped would cure her is what actually kills her. How does she deal with that? Does she feel guilty? Does she lash out at the unfairness of it? Does she find a way to cope? Those are much more interesting questions than being able to chalk it up to an accident or coincidence.

We all love our characters. That doesn’t mean we can’t get them dirty and let them work to stay clean. That’s entertaining.

© 2020 Craig Gusmann

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑