Keep Raising the Stakes

What makes a movie drag is that nothing important seems to be going on, there’s no reason for anyone to do anything, and nothing seems connected. To hold and maintain the audience’s attention, you need to keep raising the stakes for the hero in three areas.

First, the hero must begin stuck in a dead end life so he has a goal of some kind. At this point, the hero has no reason to pursue this goal, so that’s why the villain must inadvertently interfere with the hero’s life and provide the hero with a physical goal to achieve his emotional goal. In “Elysium,” the hero has a goal to get to Elysium, a floating space colony where people live in luxury. The hero has been dreaming about this goal for years so what raises the stakes for him is when he accidentally gets radiated at work and only has five days left to live.

The first stake to raise is a direct threat to the hero. Such direct threats are more effective when there’s a time deadline attached so everyone knows that if the hero doesn’t do anything, his chance will be gone for good. Because the hero in “Elysium” only has five days left to live, he’s extremely motivated to pursue his goal of getting to Elysium, and that’s what pushes the story forward.

The second stake to raise is to threaten someone the hero loves. In “Elysium,” the hero loves a woman who has a daughter dying of leukemia. When the villain captures this woman and her daughter, the stakes get raised even further for the hero. It’s bad enough that the hero will die in five days, but now someone he loves will get hurt as well unless he takes action to help her.

The third stake to raise is the Horrible Consequence if the villain should win. Suddenly we should realize what would happen if the villain should win. In “Elysium,” one villain is the woman who wants to take over control of the colony. That’s bad enough, but then there’s a sadistic psychopath hired killer who also wants to take over the colony too, which is even worse. If this second villain should succeed, the colony itself will become a dictatorship and the people on Earth will never have hope of getting a better life.

So the three ways to keep raising the stakes are

  1. Threaten the hero personally with a deadline.
  2. Threaten someone the hero loves.
  3. Threaten the world with a Horrible Consequence.

In “Die Hard,” the first threat are the terrorists trying to kill John McClane. The second threat are the terrorists killing John McClane’s wife. The third threat are the terrorists killing all the hostages and getting away.

In “Star Wars,” the first threat are the stormtroopers looking to kill Luke. The second threat is Darth Vader imprisoning Princess Leia. The third threat is Darth Vader blowing up the rebel base and establishing complete dominance of the universe with the Death Star.

By raising the stakes throughout your story, you keep ratcheting up the suspense that keeps the story moving. Threaten the hero, threaten someone the hero loves, and threaten the world with a Horrible Consequence. Then by Act III, we’ll really want to see how the hero resolves all of these growing problems.

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