Dramatic stakes are what your characters stand to gain or to lose, what they risk if they do or don’t do that thing they want to do. Without stakes, you have no story.
Take this example of a story without stakes.
A high school student wants to sing in her school talent show. She’s unsure whether she should sing or not, because she’s not sure if she’s good enough. However, her friends, her parents, and the show’s director all encourage her to sing. After all it’s just for fun, right? In the end, she gets up, she sings, she’s pretty good, and life goes on.
Very boring. Why? Because if the student doesn’t sing, nothing changes. If she does nothing changes either. Either way she’s not going to lose anything. And, in the end, it’s just a high school talent show. Let’s raise the stakes a little bit:
A high school student wants to sing in her school talent show. She’s nervous because she’s not sure if she’s good enough. She’s also not very popular at school and is worried she will be teased if she’s not good. But if she doesn’t sing, she won’t ever be noticed at school.
OK, slightly better, but still not great. Now our protagonist has something to gain and something to lose. It’s also a relatable situation – we’ve all been in situations where we’ve been worried about embarrassing ourselves or wanted to impress certain people. But is it high enough stakes to write a whole screenplay about? No, it’s not.
Finally, let’s look at a version of this plot with high stakes:
A high school student is looking to get into a prestigious university to study medicine, but her parents are poor and can’t afford it. The school, however, offers scholarships in its music program. The student loves to sing and has even had some training, but she also gets crippling stage fright. A representative of the university will be attending the talent show and this could be her only chance to win the scholarship. However, the student is also constantly bullied at school, over an incident that happened on stage two years ago. She’s worried that if she sings, and isn’t good enough, she’ll be publicly humiliated, bullied and trolled on social media for the rest of her time at high school.
Now we’re rooting for her! You can and should make the stakes continually higher throughout the screenplay. Maybe she doesn’t qualify to get into any other universities, so now the scholarship is her only shot at becoming a doctor. Maybe she has a crush on someone she will have to sing in front of. As you’re writing, always ask yourself, “What does my character have to gain? And what do they have to lose?”
Example: High School Musical (2006)
Some genres come with stakes pretty much built into them. In a horror movie, the stakes are life or death. In romances, the stakes are true love and happiness. In an action flick, the hero must act quickly before the supervillain takes over the world, or the bomb is detonated, or WWIII is started.
So for an example I’ve chosen a film that, outwardly, has low stakes. Two high school students either get the leading roles in their school musical or they don’t. Neither of them particularly want to be singers, and both have other potential careers that they could excel in. And yet preteens everywhere rooted for Troy and Gabriella to be cast over Sharpay and Ryan, and cheered when they won. Why?
While these outward stakes on their own seem low, the inward stakes for our protagonists – that is, their emotional wellbeing, and that of the people around them – are high. High School Musical explores the idea of cliques or social circles both within and after high school being binding and constraining: if you’re a jock, you’re a jock, if you’re a science nerd then you better stick to the books. These social categories dictate everything from where you can sit at lunch to who you can fall in love with.
Troy and Gabriella are both suffering under these conditions. Both characters desire to break out from their assigned role. Despite having friends and success in their social circles, they both feel incomplete, as though something big is missing. They stumble onto this missing piece one New Year’s Eve, where they are set up to sing together at karaoke. It’s this event that reveals to them their love of music, and each other. However, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, a romance between a science geek and the basketball star in the world of the high school status quo, is forbidden.
With all this considered, the stakes behind being cast in the lead roles for a musical become much higher than they would appear to be. Troy and Gabriella both stand to lose their reputations and their social standings by admitting their love of musical theatre. However, by not auditioning, they would miss out on the chance to feel complete and happy, with a potentially strong and lasting relationship between the two of them.
Always ask yourself: what do my characters have to gain? And what do they have to lose? And why should the audience care?
From the EBook ‘Ten Mistakes You’re Making in Your Screenplay’ by Cat Sole, available soon from the Script Central website.