Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling: Rule #16: Stakes and Sweat

What are the stakes? Give us a reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
This is going to sound silly at first, but bear with me: I think the best part of Rule #16 is the word “stakes.”
Stakes are everything in writing. I mean, of course there’s good character, story, crescendo, climax. But to me that all sounds like wah wah wah without some serious stakes.
What are “stakes”? I mean, other than things with which you stab vampires and they explode and cover you in gooey bits?
I propose this definition:
Stakes are the potential consequences to failure; what could or will happen if the hero does not succeed in his or her mission.
Think about this: you have a great hero. A complicated hero that we both love and hate a little. She’s quirky. Her flaws are funny at best, and tragic at worst. We want to be her. We want to be with her. She’s smarter than us but sometimes we think, “What are you thinking? No! Don’t do that! Why would you do that?!”
But what is she other than a quirky hero we love to hate, if she doesn’t struggle a little? How will we ever know her flaws and her virtues unless she’s put in a position where she has to use them?
You can build the best character you like, but unless we see that character under duress, we readers won’t fall in love with her. We won’t root for her.
Stakes invest the reader in the character. Stakes give her meaning, purpose, and conflict. What happens if she succeeds in her mission? What happens if she fails?
And now, my second-favorite part of Rule #16: “Stack the odds against.”
A lot of writing is really just clinical abuse. I’m pretty sure that if our characters were real people, most of us writers would be sitting behind bars.
Think about it: when are you most thrilled in a story? When do you find the pages flying by? When the hero is under stress; when it seems like there is no possible way this will all work out, and you keep reading in hopes that it will. (You know, because you’re invested?)
Not only does it seem like the hero going to fail now, but the consequences of her failure have just doubled. No, tripled! Not only will her best friend die, but the world will implode because of that mistake she just made. And then not only will the world implode, but it will also set off a chain reaction resulting in the total destruction of the universe.
And then? Make it look like she’s going to fail. For real. The hurdles between the hero and her best friend have multiplied ten-fold. Literally, she cut the head off the hydra and it grew ten more. Then, each head grew wings and became independent hydras and she is super, super screwed.
Now we really get to see our hero sweat. We get to see her smarts and her courage and her talent with a bow-knife, and we are floored when she has some clever, sneaky little solution and somehow manages to succeed. She kills the hydra, saves her best friend, and the world is safe again.
Stakes unite your work. Good stakes set up conflict, imply the consequences, and make your hero’s success (or failure! Failure is a fine way to end, too) vindicating and enjoyable for the reader.
And don’t forget that characters aren’t real people! You don’t have to feel bad about grinding them into the pavement before you let them win.

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