Upping the Stakes in a Story

There’s an interesting book by Matthew Dicks called “Storyworthy,” which explains how tot ell a compelling story. Although the book is based on the author’s experience as a storyteller in front of audiences, the principles work equally well in screenwriting.

One key element of storytelling is to keep upping the stakes in a story to keep the audience interested. Five ways Matthew Dicks suggests doing this include what he calls:

  • The Elephant (What’s it about?)
  • Backpacks (Plans)
  • Breadcrumbs (Individual items)
  • Hourglasses (Slowing down time)
  • Crystal balls (Making predictions)

The Elephant is basically giving the audience a clue what the story is about and what’s the main goal. With a movie like “Die Hard,” the hero’s main goal is to get back with his wife. Then he runs into terrorists and that seems to be the main story, but it’s not.

The terrorists are there just to keep the hero from getting back with his wife. Now he has to fight the terrorists to save his wife so he can get back together with her again.

Another example that Matthew Dicks points out is “Jurassic Park.” Most people think it’s about dinosaurs running amok but it’s not. The real story is that it’s about a scientist who must learn to love children because his initial disaster for children is what’s keeping him from the woman he loves, who wants to have children.

So the hero is forced to protect two children from dinosaurs and in the process, he learns to change his mind about children so he can eventually have a happy life with the woman he loves.

The Elephant is basically what’s the story about and the main obstacle. In “Die Hard,” people think it’s about terrorists. With “Jurassic Park,” people think it’s about dinosaurs. That’s what attract people to a story, and then the real purpose of the story is hidden underneath this Elephant.

Backpacks are plans that keeps an audience wondering what will happen next. In “Die Hard,” the main story might seem to be about terrorists, but there are plenty of moments that give us a clue to the future.

When John McClane first spots the terrorists, his plan is to escape so now we’re left in suspense on whether he’ll escape or not.

In “Jurassic Park,” there’s a scene where the hero and two children need to scale an electric fence. The plan is to climb over it once they realize the power has been turned off. Now the suspense occurs when we wonder if they’ll make it over before the power gets turned back on again.

Breadcrumbs are individual items. In the opening scene in “Die Hard,” John McClane identifies himself as a cop to a fellow passenger when he spots his gun. So naturally that gun will come into play later when John McClane has to fight the terrorists.

In “Jurassic Park,” there’s an early scene that explains how velociraptors can manipulate items with their claws like hands. That skill later appears when the velociraptors turn door handles to hunt down the children in a kitchen.

Hourglasses means slowing time down to focus on the details to up the stakes of a scene. In “Jurassic Park,” time flows quickly between the time the kids get into an enclosed car to tour the park and the time the car starts moving because the details are relatively unimportant.

However, time slows down when the T-Rex gets loose and tries to attack the kids in the car. Notice that every detail is suddenly important from the T-Rex peering in through the window to the hero shouting to get the T-Rex’s attention.

In “Die Hard,” only the crucial moments are shown in detail such as when a sleazy guy talks to John McCane over the phone and Hans the terrorist shoots the guy so John McClane can hear the shot over the phone. This is an important moment so all the details are there for us to notice.

Crystal balls are items that let the audience try to predict what will happen next. In “Die Hard,” there’s a scene where John McClane is watching a police car pull away and we’re left in suspense on how he’ll get the attention of the police. In that brief moment, we’re trying to predict the future. Then John McClane answers that prediction by throwing a dead terrorist out the window to land on the police car windshield.

These five elements can be great ways to up the stakes in yours tory and increase tension and suspense. Think of a story like a roller coaster. You want the ride to be exciting from start to finish without any dead spots. Your story should be the same way.

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