Stakes: Show us what you’ve got!

When doing concept a couple weeks ago, I popped off a few examples to show each master’s way of writing concept.  When illustrating Mr. Iglesias’ approach, I wrote this:

A high school dance troupe rallies around its wrongly suspended captain to form a karate team and take state before they graduate.

This concept sentence didn’t come out of my fingers fully formed like this.  At first, it was more simple, something like:

A dance troupe becomes a karate team.

Is that a concept?  Sure.  But it’s pretty ho-hum, and I knew it, so I kept tinkering.  And it wasn’t until after I added a few details about the captain (first “suspended,” then “wrongly suspended”) and about the circumstances in which they formed the karate team (first “to take state,” and then “to take state before they graduate”–and now I might even say, “to take state before the captain graduates”) that this story had any appeal.


Because until these details were added, there weren’t any stakes.  Stakes can up the ante of a concept.

Lets look at some other one-line synopses from a couple weeks ago:

1. When the money runs out before the case against his transgender partner is over, a human rights lawyer joins a prestigious and wealthy law firm not knowing that the managing partner is the devil behind the lawsuit.

What might be at stake?

Well, our lawyer-main-character has some personal stakes: He cares about his transgender partner, and probably the case itself, not only winning this case, but shaping the law for future cases.  We could probably also put his career and position as an attorney on the line, perhaps by way of an ethical breach, since you normally can’t date your clients.  And maybe that provides a dilemma: his career or his partner?

Perhaps, in a formative early life event, our hero was set-up for a fall by a bully as a youngster. And perhaps it parallels how the devil is treating him now.  Maybe this formative event impedes his confidence, and if he succeeds with this law suit he’ll finally get over the earlier incident as well.

There are clear stakes for the other characters: civil rights are at stake for the transgender client/partner.  And the devil probably has an evil quota to make or else.

The crucible-forming bonding agent comes from our hero’s professional integrity (he’s got to finish the case) and from his relationship (he can’t leave his loved one hanging).  Our devil’s bonding agent probably comes from pride and ego. He’s powerful and he always wins. Why would he ever give up?

The demonstrative bite could come from a small charge against the client, perhaps something lots of people do but that is often overlooked by law enforcement, like jay walking, and maybe it lands the client in jail.

Maybe, to raise the public stakes, both in terms of obstacles and consequences, the client and our hero can be in a hurry to get to the courtroom, but there’s a parade going on, which makes them late.  They’re scared, they’re frustrated, and when someone gets annoyed with their pushing through the crowd, one of them starts a fist fight.  And this further complicates things because the punched person wants to press charges and bring a civil suit, and the devil steps up to be the lawyer for that case too.  And maybe doing this will give the devil access to all sorts of new information on the transgender client, and on our hero, that the devil can use against them in the civil rights case.

In a moment of Ultimate Stakes, we could also have Hidden Stakes and Evolving Stakes.  Our hero wants to win this case, but maybe what he really needs is to know that he can stand up to anyone, no matter what resources that other person has.  He needs to feel empowered.  And he became a lawyer, a human rights lawyer, to become empowered by helping others to feel empowered.  And so when all is lost, he finds a way, maybe through a conversation with the client/partner, to find his empowerment and embrace it, and to stand tall and charge into that courtroom with new confidence and new clarity… and perhaps new evidence or insight that wins the case.

2. When his brother’s gang develops a diamond bullet that can penetrate bullet proof vests, a scholarship student must decide whether to help his brother avenge the death of their gang-leader father or protect the father of his girlfriend, the Police Commissioner of New York City.

What’s at stake here?

Well, we’ve got a pretty clear formative event do-over:  Our hero’s dad is dead, and now’s a chance to save another father figure.

His personal stakes are huge, as is his dilemma:  Will he disappoint his brother or his girlfriend?  Will he remain pure or will he help kill a man?  But he also can’t just do nothing, and herein lies the crucible, because if he doesn’t help his brother, his brother’s gang will plant drugs on him and he’ll lose his scholarship, and if he doesn’t save his girlfriend’s dad, she will leave him and he’ll probably lose all his friends too.  He’ll become the worthless scholarship kid they always thought he was.

The stakes of other characters are huge:  His girlfriend might lose a father, and that man could lose his life.  His brother also has pride at stake.  Does he have the guts to avenge his dad and prove that no one messes with his family?

As for public stakes, perhaps our police commissioner was supposed to be away on vacation and our hero suddenly became off the hook with having to decide what to do, but now there’s an unrelated riot and the commissioner has gone to the front line. And if bro wanted to kill him, now would be the perfect time.  A dilemma again: will our hero warn the commissioner or stand by?

As for evolving stakes, what the character wants is probably for everything to just go back to the way it was before, before his dad was dead, before his brother was threatening his dad’s girlfriend.  But what he needs is to think for himself, to shed the influence of everyone around him.  So maybe he comes up with a way to solve this problem on his own terms.  It’s risky, he could piss off everyone, but when he summons the strength to do it anyway, he sets forth his Ultimate Stakes.

Well, that’s it for me.  What about you?  What kind of stakes do you have in your story?


It’s a new month! Come back next week for the first of four new tools having to do with THEME.

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