Skip to main content

Script Angel: What is at Stake? Making The Small Feel Big

What is at stake in your story doesn't always have to be a matter of life and death. Hayley McKenzie explains the importance of making smaller stakes appear big.

A strong concept is essential, whether you’re writing a feature film or a television show, and we’ve all heard the mantra that you need ‘high stakes.’ There is certainly no greater stakes than life itself. The fear of death connects with us on a deep level because we are aware of our mortality, and stories that tap into our fear of death have an incredible emotional power.

Betty Draper (January Jones) - Mad Men - Season 4 - Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Betty Draper (January Jones) - Mad Men - Season 4 - Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

And surely there are no higher stakes than if the lives of everyone on earth are under threat; Armageddon, Independence Day, Men In Black, The War of the Worlds, Deep Impact, Contagion and every superhero movie ever. But having lots of lives in jeopardy isn’t what is really getting to us, and it is rarely what will move us to tears. We’ve all watched big-budget movies threatening the end of the world and left the movie theater feeling precisely nothing. What delivers the real emotional thunderbolt is a threat to the life of a character or characters we care about. Sometimes that life is under threat right from the start, as in Lorenzo’s Oil or Philadelphia, and sometimes that is the emotional climax of the movie, as in E.T – who didn’t have tears streaming down their face as we willed Elliot and E.T to pull through?!

Television has the same constant demand for the stakes to be high and there is a huge reliance in the UK and US on shows where lives are at stake; ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Casualty, Hostages, House. Of course in most of these shows the lives of the regular characters are not under threat but because they care about the characters whose lives are at risk, so we are made to care.

Putting at risk the lives of characters we have been made to care about can certainly provide high stakes but does that mean that stories in which no one’s life is under threat lack the emotional impact of those in which they are? All stories need to illicit an emotional response from the reader/viewer, to move us in some way but lives at risk is not the only way to make an audience care or, indeed, to move them to tears.

When I first started working in television in the UK some fifteen years ago, I was lucky enough to work at BBC Drama, then under the guidance of Jane Tranter who is now Executive Vice-President of Programming and Production, BBC Worldwide Los Angeles. In the department was a brilliant document called A Guide To Script Editing. In it were lots of great pieces of advice about script editing, including a great gag that went; ‘Q: How many Script Editors does it take to change a light bulb? A: Does it have to be a light bulb?’ Anyway, importantly it talked about script editing on the BBC’s continuing drama series (or soap opera) EastEnders – then, as now, a flagship programme for the BBC in the UK. EastEnders, as with our other hugely successful soaps, is concerned with the lives and loves of a group of ordinary people. Stories about death are rare and can only ever make up a tiny fraction of the story material the show needs year-round. So the show relies on the skill of the writers to make the small (petty feuds, relationship breakdowns, blossoming romances, financial struggles) feel huge and, importantly, feel intensely dramatic for the audience.

UK television drama has a fantastic reputation worldwide for creating shows in which we care about the everyday trials and tribulations of a group of characters. Some of those shows are hugely successful but perhaps only in the UK (EastEnders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale) while others have become successes at home and on the international stage; Downton Abbey (ITV/PBS), The Paradise (BBC/PBS), Mr Selfridge (ITV/PBS). In the US too, the critical success of Mad Men shows that you don’t need your characters to be under threat of death or violence in order to care about them and feel intensely invested in their struggle for happiness.

Making the audience care about your characters’ struggle when no one’s life is in danger takes great skill, but when done well, these kinds of stories, of struggles we recognize as reflecting our own lives, can deliver an emotional intensity to match any death scene. It’s particularly important when writing film screenplays that fall into the Drama genre. The key is in realizing that while it may not be the end of the world, what is at stake is the end of our character’s world. What is at stake is their happiness and no film exemplifies this more than The Pursuit of Happyness. We never fear for Chris Gardner’s life (Will Smith) but we are utterly drawn into his struggle in pursuing of happiness. The stakes might, at first glance, appear to be low, but it is the skill of the writing that makes us feel that the stakes are incredibly high. It, along with all successful Drama films, makes the stakes feel high. They deliver a story in which we feel how big these apparently small things are to the characters. In Hope Springs (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones) it is their marriage that is at stake. What the writing does is make us feel, that for these characters, their marriage is their world and so the end of their world is at stake and with it their happiness. The same skills are needed in writing any Romance film, including Romantic Comedies, because as with the Drama genre, it is the characters’ happiness at stake. Silver Linings Playbook (Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper) is a great example of screenwriting that makes apparently small things (like entering a dance competition) feel enormous and thus deliver the emotional intensity that makes us engage with the story and the characters so deeply.

To engage an audience your story doesn’t need the stakes to be high from a subjective point of view but what you do need to do is to convey to us just how incredibly high they feel to your characters. If you can master this skill in your screenwriting, whatever genre you’re writing in, you’ll be able to write screenplays that the people reading them will want to see made.

Related Articles:

Tools to Help:

Get a roadmap to your story's structure and character development with our FREE Download Structure Grid of Character Development and Plot