How to ‘Raise The Stakes’ in Creative Writing & Storytelling

people climbing a snowy mountain

One of the most important aspects of a good movie is having stakes that actually matter to both the main character and the audience. Stakes are what keep us on the edge of our seats, biting our nails and rooting for the hero.

Like William Landay said, 

“Good stories are driven by conflict, tension, and high stakes.” 

But sadly, many modern Hollywood movies seem to be forgetting this essential element! Let’s take a closer look at what stakes are in a movie and why we need them to make a comeback. 

If you’d prefer to watch my thoughts rather than read them, check out my YouTube video below!

What Are Stakes?

In storytelling, stakes are the potential consequences for the characters if they fail to achieve their goals. It’s what’s at risk for them in the story and what they stand to lose. 

High stakes make us care about the characters’ journeys because there’s something significant that hangs in the balance.

Think about it. Would you care as much about Frodo in The Lord of the Rings if his mission was just to deliver a letter to a neighbor instead of a ring that carried the fate of Middle Earth?

Or would you be as invested in Harry Potter’s story if he was merely competing in a school spelling bee and not battling the darkest wizard of all time?

How To Raise the Stakes In Writing

So, how can you as screenwriter or filmmaker raise the stakes and make your audience care deeply about your characters and stories? You don’t always need a life-or-death situation! 

Stakes can be emotional, personal, or moral. The more layers of complexity you can add to the stakes, the richer your story becomes. The key is to make the outcome of the main conflict of the story matter deeply to the characters and, by extension, the audience.

As Eric Bork once said,

“It’s true in every genre, and in television, fiction and theatre, as well. Something life-changing has to be at risk for a story to really work.”

Let’s take a look at the kinds of stakes that resonate with movie audiences most.

RELATED: Check out my thoughts on why low stakes are killing modern Hollywood!

Personal Stakes

One of the most effective ways to engage your audience is by making the stakes deeply personal for your characters.

This means that the outcome of the story should directly impact the character’s life in a meaningful way.

Think about these questions:

  1. What does my character care about most? This is fundamental. It could be a person, a dream, or an ideal. Whatever it is, it should be something they’re willing to fight for.
  2. How can I put what they care about at risk? This could mean creating a situation where their loved one is in danger, their dream is almost out of reach, or their ideal is being challenged.
  3. How will the outcome of the story affect my character personally? Remember, the impact should be significant to your character. Maybe they lose something precious, or perhaps they gain something they’ve always wanted.
  4. How will these personal stakes influence my character’s choices and actions? These stakes should drive your character’s decisions. They should be willing to take risks, make sacrifices, and even face their deepest fears.
  5. What will happen if they fail? The outcome of the main character’s failure to achieve their goal should be terrible. It should not only affect them but also the people and things they care about.
  6. How will facing these stakes change my character? Overcoming challenges often leads to growth. Show how dealing with these stakes makes your character stronger, wiser, or perhaps even more flawed.

You can make the audience care more about the outcome of the story when you tie the stakes to your characters’ deepest fears and desires. This usually means bringing in both internal and external conflicts.

I remember watching The Pursuit of Happyness, which beautifully illustrates this concept. The protagonist, Chris Gardner, is a struggling salesman who becomes homeless with his young son. 

The Pursuit of Happyness

The stakes are high because if he doesn’t succeed in his new job, he and his son will remain homeless. We, as viewers, are immediately invested because we want to see Chris improve his life and provide a better future for his son.

Another example is in The Hunger Games, where Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in a deadly competition. The stakes are high because her life is on the line, but what really pulls us in is her love for her sister and her determination to protect her at all costs.

Moral Stakes

Moral stakes are another powerful tool in storytelling.

These are stakes that challenge a character’s values or beliefs. They force characters to make difficult decisions that test their moral compass.

  1. What are my character’s core values? This is the foundation stone. Figure out what your character firmly believes in – it could be honesty, loyalty, justice, or anything else that resonates with them.
  2. How can I challenge these values? Think about situations that could put these values to the test. For example, would your character lie to save a friend?
  3. What difficult decisions will my character face? This is where the rubber meets the road. Your character should be confronted with choices that aren’t easy, choices that challenge their moral compass.
  4. What are the potential consequences of these decisions? Every decision has repercussions. It’s important to show how these moral dilemmas affect your character and those around them.
  5. How will these moral stakes evolve over time? As your character navigates through the plot, their understanding of their own values may change. This evolution can add depth to your character.
  6. How will these moral stakes impact the story’s resolution? The climax of your story should ideally tie back to these moral stakes. It could be a moment of redemption, a tragic fall, or an enlightening realization.

Take the movie Schindler’s List. Oskar Schindler, initially motivated by profit during World War II, faces a moral dilemma when he becomes aware of the atrocities happening around him. 

schindler's list

The stakes are raised as he risks his life and fortune to save as many Jews as he could. The moral stakes in this film make it an unforgettable viewing experience.

Emotional Stakes

Last but not least, emotional stakes can add depth and complexity to your story.

These are stakes that tap into the characters’ emotions and relationships, making the audience feel emotionally connected to the characters.

  • What are my characters’ deepest fears and desires? These are the emotional undercurrents that drive your characters. Understand them, and you’ll understand your characters’ hearts.
  • How can I create situations that trigger these emotions? Perhaps a character’s old wound is reopened, or they’re forced to confront their worst fear. These emotional trials will make your characters – and your story – come alive.
  • Who are the people my characters care about the most? Relationships are fertile ground for emotional stakes. Whether it’s a friendship, a romance, or a familial bond, these connections can tug at your characters’ – and readers’ – heartstrings.
  • How can these relationships be tested or threatened? Conflict is the lifeblood of any story. It could be an argument, a betrayal, a misunderstanding – anything that puts a strain on these relationships.
  • How will these emotional stakes affect my characters’ decisions? Emotions can cloud judgement, spur action, and lead to dramatic choices. Show your characters wrestling with these emotions as they navigate through the plot.
  • What emotional journey do I want my characters to go on? Your characters should grow emotionally over the course of the story. Maybe they learn to trust again, or perhaps they finally let go of a past hurt.

A great example of this is the film Up. The emotional stakes are high for the elderly protagonist, Carl, who embarks on an adventure to fulfill a promise to his late wife. 

Up Movie poster

Carl’s journey is about more than reaching a physical destination – it’s about Carl coming to terms with his grief and learning to live again. The emotional stakes make us root for Carl and celebrate his eventual healing.

In the words of renowned filmmaker Martin Scorsese,

“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” 

How to Increase Tension in a Story: 6 Quick Ways

1. Loss of an Ally

Things suddenly become much harder when a character loses a friend or an ally. Think of a time in your life when you were going through something and had no one to help you out. It feels terrible!

It also means the character in the story has to face challenges without the help and support they used to have. This can make a story much more intense because the characters now have to rely on themselves.

The Avengers: The team feels a profound loss when Agent Coulson is killed by Loki. His death galvanizes the Avengers to come together and stop Loki’s invasion, despite their initial conflicts and differences.

2. Remove a Physical Advantage

Think about a soccer player who’s known for running fast but then gets an injury. Suddenly, they can’t rely on their speed! In stories, when characters lose something they’re really good at, like a special tool or a unique skill, they have to find new ways to solve problems.

This raises the stakes because the character and the readers wonder if they’ll still succeed without that advantage.

127 Hours: Aron Ralston, an experienced climber, finds himself trapped in a canyon when a boulder pins his arm. His physical strength is rendered useless, forcing him to make a harrowing choice for survival.

3. Undermine a Bedrock Belief

Everyone has beliefs that shape how they see the world. For a character in a story, having their core belief challenged is like having the rug pulled out from under them. For example, if a character strongly believes in always telling the truth but then finds out a big secret that they can’t tell anyone, it makes their situation much more complicated.

This makes the story more gripping because the character has to navigate this inner conflict on top of everything else happening.

The Matrix: Neo’s belief in the reality of his world is shattered when he learns that humanity is trapped in a simulated reality controlled by machines. This forces him to question everything he knows and sets the scene for the rest of the story.

4. Add a ‘Time Bomb

This doesn’t mean an actual bomb (though it could be!). A “time bomb” in a story is any situation where the characters have to do something before time runs out. It could be as simple as needing to solve a mystery before a certain event or having to travel somewhere within a tight deadline.

This ticking clock makes every moment feel important and urgent!

Speed: A bus is rigged with a bomb that will explode if its speed drops below 50 mph, creating a high-stakes scenario where every decision is critical to the passengers’ survival.

5. Introduce a Moral Dilemma

Sometimes, a character must make a choice between two equally undesirable outcomes. This dilemma forces the character to weigh their values and make a decision that could have far-reaching consequences.

For instance, a superhero might have to choose between saving a city from destruction or rescuing their loved one from a villain. This type of scenario raises the stakes by putting the character’s principles to the test in a meaningful way.

Spider-Man: Peter Parker faces a moral dilemma when he must choose between stopping the Green Goblin and saving a cable car full of children.

6. Reveal a Betrayal

Trust is a fundamental aspect of any relationship, and the revelation of a betrayal can drastically alter the dynamics between characters. When a trusted ally turns out to be a traitor, the protagonist not only faces a personal sense of betrayal but also the practical implications of their plans being exposed to the antagonist.

This can lead to a cascade of problems, forcing the protagonist to reevaluate their alliances and strategies. The emotional fallout from a betrayal heightens the tension, making the stakes feel even more urgent and real.

The Departed: The intricate web of loyalties unravels as the true allegiances of the characters are revealed, particularly when it’s discovered that Matt Damon’s character is an informant for the mob within the police force.

Final Thoughts

I hope this has helped you think more deeply about how to raise the stakes for the characters in your story!

It’s time for a resurgence of great storytelling, and one aspect is to create enough tension and conflict so that the audience truly cares about the characters and their arcs.

If you want to tell a great story, here are a few other important aspects of storytelling! Happy writing!

What is Pacing in a Story? Tips for Story Pacing for Writers

Story Structure: 9 Powerful Narrative Structures for Writers

How to Raise the Stakes pin

Common Questions (FAQs)

What does ‘raising the stakes’ mean in creative writing?

In creative writing, ‘raising the stakes’ means increasing the tension and consequences in your story. It involves making the outcomes of your character’s actions more significant and creating a sense of urgency and importance that keeps readers engaged.

Why is it important to raise the stakes in a story?

Raising the stakes is important because it heightens the emotional impact and engagement of your story. Readers become more concerned about the outcome when characters face greater risks and challenges.

Do the stakes always have to keep increasing throughout the story?

While stakes typically build toward a climax, there can be moments of relief or partial resolutions along the way. The key is to maintain a sense of progression and escalating tension overall, leading to a satisfying climax and resolution.

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