Friday, February 1, 2019

Writing Tip #1: Raise the Stakes!


Stakes are important. They're what make us care about the story in the first place. Without stakes, there's no tension. Without stakes, there's no one to root for.

Every writer knows they need to give their hero a meaningful goal, but that's not what we're talking about here. Stakes go deeper. Stakes answer the question: what does the hero lose if they don't reach their goal?

This is a lesson I had to relearn when I was polishing the script of the pilot for The Enchanted Bookshop TV series.

In the teaser, Miss Margie is threatened with eviction because she's several months behind on her rent. Shortly after, the Lits have a brief exchange what they can do to help.

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter.


                      POLLYANNA
          What's this, Dorothy?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr, Skinflint. If Miss 
          Margie doesn't come up with three
          thousand dollars by tomorrow, Mr. 
          Skinflint is going to close the shop.

                      POLLYANNA
          Oh, no! What's going to happen to 
          us?

                      DOROTHY
          Who cares what happen to us? It's 
          Miss Margie I'm worried about.

                      TOM
          Yeah. This shop is her life.

                      POLLYANNA
          Hey, I've got an idea! Why don't we 
          open a lemonade stand? I'll bet we 
          could raise the three thousand dollars 
          in no time!

                      DOROTHY
          You know we can't do that, Pollyanna.
          That would break the two rules the 
          Book Fairy gave us when she first 
          brought us to life.

                      TOM
          That's right! If we ever leave the 
          shop or are seen by any humans, we'll
          disappear into our books forever.

If you've seen the play, then you might remember that this is pretty close to what the Lits say soon after we meet them.

The scene does a lot. It introduces the two rules that the Lits have to follow. It describes what'll happen if Margie doesn't pay her rent. And it throws in a little humor by showing how the overly optimistic Pollyanna would address the problem.

Unfortunately, it failed do the one thing it needed to do: lay out the stakes for the Lits.

That's because I played it safe. In my mind, I knew that the Lits would disappear into their books forever if Margie lost the shop. But I didn't want the stakes to be about them. I didn't want the Lits to seem selfish.

So I made the stakes about Margie. And I thought if we saw how much the Lits care about her, then we'll be rooting for them.

The problem is that it doesn't make us root for Margie. As my manager pointed out, why do we care if Margie loses the shop?

And if I had any doubt about his wisdom (I didn't), I got almost the exact same criticism from a reader at a screenwriting competition.

John's suggestion was to add a scene showing Margie doing a reading to kids at a library. If Margie loses the shop, then the kids lose their stories.

It's a good suggestion, and I'm sure it would work. But one thing I've learned is that if you need to clarify something and your choice is between explaining it by providing additional dialogue or simplifying it by removing the source of confusion in the first place, the better choice is to simplify.

So this is what I came up with:

Pollyanna picks up the NOTE from the counter,

                      POLLYANNA
          What's this?

                      DOROTHY
          Didn't you hear? That's the past due 
          notice from Mr. Skinflint.

                      TOM
          If Miss Margie doesn't come up with 
          the money by tomorrow, that old miser
          will shut down the shop and we'll 
          disappear into our books forever!

Short. Punchy. And, I hope, effective.

Yes, it leaves out the two rules and it leaves out the fact that Margie could lose the shop. But I can always drop those into a later episode.

Right now, in the pilot, I have one job, and that's to lay out the stakes that will keep viewers coming back.

What are the stakes in your story? What does your hero stand to lose if they don't reach their goal?

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