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Raise the Stakes: Crank It Up!

By Michael Schilf · December 4, 2010

Imagine the following situation: a lobster boat sinks in the middle of the Atlantic and two lone survivors are on a dingy with six months supply of food, water, plenty of sunscreen, and clothing to protect themselves from the elements. Now ask yourself: “Is this a bad situation?”

Often, I ask this exact hypothetical in my workshops, and every time students agree that the situation isn’t that bad at all. Here’s my response: “Are you crazy?!”

And then I go on to explain how dire the predicament really is: the two characters are lost in the middle of the ocean with no means to navigate or call for help.

But here’s the problem. If we tell the above story in real life, it works, but movie life is different – it is always bigger, MUCH BIGGER.

So here’s the movie version of the hypothetical: two characters are stranded on a dingy in the middle of the Atlantic, no food supply, no water, no sunscreen, not enough clothing, water is leaking in through a hole in the dingy, a storm is brewing on the horizon, and… one character has just discovered that the other man is having an affair with his wife.

The stakes are huge – both physical and emotional. Conflict is moviemaking, and when you’re writing a movie, you always have to go larger, bigger, give us the most amazing journey possible, because when you do this, it will hit your audience with much more staying power.

You want to SQUEEZE your characters, constantly making it harder on them. If you do not, your script is just too damn easy for everyone involved – too nice – which makes it hard for the audience to care about the characters and their situation. And if the audience stops caring, you have just handed a death sentence to your screenplay. This is why you must raise the stakes: crank it up!