Last week we talked about how to discover Stakes and Motivations. But, how do you use them to create a powerful story?
Let the Fight Begin!
One of my favorite movies for continually raising stakes and forcing the viewer to the edge of her seat is the thriller, Cellular. Just to recap, in a nutshell, it’s a movie about a woman who is kidnapped. She uses a demolished phone to call for help and gets hold of a young man whose girlfriend has broken up with him because of his irresponsibility. A deadline of sorts hangs over their conversation (an essential element in any suspense), because, at any moment, they could get cut off, and she may never be able to dial out again. She must convince this random guy to help her. He eventually gets involved to the point where he begins to break the law and risk his life to save her.
Why does he do all this for someone he doesn’t know? It’s certainly not to prove he’s responsible. He actually doesn’t agree with the accusation by his girlfriend. So what makes this free-living guy care enough about a stranger to help her?
The answer is found in the rising balance of story stakes and motivation. Or…the Push-Pull.
We learned about the different kind of kind of stakes: public and private. Now as you lay out the stakes, you’re going to make them fit your story.
First, you’ll make sure they are in Proportion to the challenges before the hero. If the stakes are too great, the hero will simply give up.
For example, by the end of Cellular, the hero is taking on bad cops in the LA police department who are trying to kill him. If he knew at the beginning of the movie what he’d be facing in the end, he would have hung up the phone in an instant. But in the beginning of Cellular, only the life of the woman is at risk – and frankly our hero doesn’t even believe her. All that is at stake for him is that he’ll be late running an errand for a friend. (Thus cementing the idea he’s irresponsible). The stakes are miniscule, and he doesn’t need much private motivation to overcome them.
He takes his cell phone to the police station rather dubiously, and is told he has to take the phone to the next floor. He’s losing reception on the phone when he hears her being attacked. Suddenly, the stakes are raised. The woman’s life really could be in danger. Suddenly we’re beginning to tap into his values (responsibility). He isn’t going to let the phone go dead.
Now what? The author raises the stakes to a new level. The woman’s son is threatened. The hero makes a heroic choice (one step above his primal instincts) when he decides he must race to the school to find the boy…only to have school let out a sea of khaki and blue shirt clad ten- year-old boys. He is too late to reach the child, and watches him get kidnapped.
New Stake: The child has been kidnapped by thugs. It is met with the new Motivation: A child’s life is in danger, and the hero didn’t reach him in time, thus he feels responsible. Our hero makes yet another heroic choice when he races after the bad guys, all the while dodging traffic.
Then the cell phone battery begins to die. It’s yet another stake in the story, compounded by the fact that he’s lost the bad guys. In that moment, our hero makes a pivotal choice to hold up a cell phone store for a battery charger, crossing the line to a point of no return.
Because the stakes have been raised. His belief that now two lives are at stake, and that only he can help (Why!), trumps the challenges before him. If he’d, say, grabbed the plate number, and called it into the police, or believed that the victim might call someone else for help, he might not have had sufficient motivation or belief in the stakes to confront the challenges before him.
Now that the motivation – that only he can help – have been raised to meet the stakes – the two lives on the line – the author raises the stakes yet again, threatening the husband. And after our hero has conquered the challenge of saving the husband…the author raises them again with a final stake – good against evil.
The key element here is the harder a character has to fight to win the day, and the more he has to fight for, the stronger the reader will stay hooked to the story. But each rising stake in the story must be in proportion to the motivation the character has to overcome it.
The second element to weaving stakes into your story is to create Believability. If, say, our hero was suddenly being chased down the street by a tank, in the middle of LA, well, we might react the same we did to crazy movies like Volcano. But even in Independence Day, we believed each outrageous stake because they’d gradually brought in the aliens and destroyed the cities in a way that seemed plausible.
Every increasing stake in Cellular is believable, or explained easily away, from losing reception (he is in an old building with cement walls), to why he can’t rescue the child (the kids are all in uniform, and the school lets out just as he arrives, into a flood of blue-shirted tykes). As you create your stakes, make sure there is one simple, believable explanation for that rising stake.
The final key in keeping your plot riveting is Balance. The stakes must rise in rhythm to the motivations. If you raise two or three stakes at once, then you need to ensure the motivations are strong enough to overcome it.
For example, in Cellular, if our hero’s cell phone battery was dying, someone was shooting at him, and he got into a car accident and broke his arm all at once without stopping to insert rising motivations, he might throw in the towel. His motivation just wouldn’t be great enough to face those cascading stakes. However, if the bad guys got a glimpse of him, and promised to go after someone he loved, he might find the strength to dig himself out of the rubble.
Make sure that you’re balancing those stakes with motivations in a rhythm that keeps your hero moving forward instead of crushing him. And remember – the higher the stakes and the faster they pile up, the more tense the story. So, it behooves the author to save those techniques until the end of your story.
You’ll notice too, that each time a stake is raised, he becomes more heroic. His actions are less and less about himself and more ultraistic.
Proportion, Believability and Balance are the keys to propelling your character through a story, over obstacles and challenges and even to the point of your hero risking it all for a stranger and becoming an ultimate hero.
Let’s revisit motivation for movement, the PUSH-PULL.
Remember: for every scene, and every motivation you have, you’ll need two things….a Push AWAY from their current situation and a PULL Towards the situation.
Going back to Cellular – the Push is often his own failure – the Pull is the threat of someone getting hurt. But the Push can often be his victory, too. You just need to make sure you have both in order to keep the momentum going forward.
Tomorrow we’re going to talk about heroism, and how to build that into the stakes and motivations of the story.