Raise The Stakes For The Characters In Your Film Script


What is the secret to writing a successful movie script? Is it the concept, the visuals or the characters. For me, it’s the characters because they will elevate everything else.

How do you write engaging characters?

Try escalating the stakes for your main character. Put them in jeopardy. Create more obstacles. More setbacks. A stake means that if your main character doesn’t succeed in one task, the end goal will not be achieved. Or worse.

Raising the stakes adds conflict and tension to your screenplay.

What sort of screenwriting stakes are we talking about exactly? I’ll take a look at a few:

EXTERNAL

These are tangible, external threats we see on screen. Is there a physical danger such as a strong villain or ticking time bomb the main character needs to face?

The ultimate threat to a character is death. Raising the stakes will either cause the main character to die or cause another character(s) to die will elevate the conflict in your screenplay.

The main character must make a decision to act or not to act. What decisions can be made?Must the main character chose the best decision of a bad bunch?Will this decision trigger a knock on effect? Will there be a net loss or a net gain? Ensuring the characters makes a bad or difficult decision (at least at the start) makes for a captivating and engaging screenplay.

I’m also including threats to reputation in this section. How will a main character’s actions be perceived by both allies and enemies? I’ve used the term perceived because reputations can be built and burned on misinformation.

INTERNAL

These relate to the internal arc of your main character. They can be emotional, intellectual or spiritual stakes that can be raised.

Elevating their stakes implies a direct challenge by an immediate situation. Does this challenge force them to undergo this change or is organic? The more forced and painful it is, the higher the stakes.

How is their thought process changing now that they are gaining more knowledge about a situation? Are their attitudes or previously held beliefs maturing? Do they have a greater understanding of a complex situation or simply dealing with it?

Raising the stakes can have multiple repercussions for your main characters. Will there be a loss or alteration in goals, attitudes or desires?

OMNIPOTENT

These are the least tangible of all stakes and relate to more esoteric concepts. What are the moral and physical stakes to an entire community? Are the stake local or universal? Is there a greater purpose or lesson to be learned from this threat? Are there any justice issues at stake? Will a better world be created or destroyed?

Something for screenwriters to chew on.

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