Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Raising the stakes

with 6 comments


If there’s one note that nearly every writer gets from an editor or reader at one point or another, it’s this: “Raise the stakes.” What makes this note so handy from a reader’s point of view—and beyond infuriating for the writer who receives it—is that it’s never wrong, and it doesn’t require much in the way of close reading or analysis of the story itself. The stakes in a story could always be a little higher, and it’s hard for an author to make a case that he’s calibrated the stakes just right, or that the story wouldn’t benefit from some additional risk or tension. It’s such a common note, in fact, that it’s turned into a running joke among screenwriters. In the commentary track for the Simpsons episode “Natural Born Kissers,” for instance, the legendary comedy writer George Meyer watches a scene in which Homer and Marge need to drive to the store to buy a new motor for their broken refrigerator, and he drily notes: “This is what’s known as ‘raising the stakes.'”

And the fact that development executives can give this note so unthinkingly explains a lot about the movies.  Recently, the New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes circulated a fake proposal for an action movie called Red, White and Blood to a number of Hollywood insiders to see what they had to say. The response from producer Lynda Obst is particularly interesting:

The stakes need to be much, much higher. A gun battle? How cute. We need hotter weapons. Huge, big battle weapons—maybe an end-of-the-world device.

Hence the fact that every superhero movie seems to end with a crisis that threatens to wipe out all of humanity, or at least most of Gotham City. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the lack of a credible threat is part of what makes Superman Returns, for all its good intentions, a bit of a snooze. But after a while, the stakes become so high that they’re almost abstract. The final battle in The Avengers is theoretically supposed to determine the fate of the world, but it still comes down to our heroes fighting a bunch of aliens on flying scooters outside Grand Central Station.


Really, though, the problem isn’t raising the stakes, but finding ways to express them in immediate human terms. Take the ending of Man of Steel. After an epic fistfight that destroys entire skyscrapers and probably costs thousands of lives, the struggle between Zod and Superman comes down to the fate of a handful of innocent bystanders—also staged, interestingly enough, in Grand Central Station. In principle, a few more casualties shouldn’t matter much either way, but they do: it’s an undeniably powerful moment in a movie in which the emotional side is often puzzlingly opaque. And it isn’t hard to see why. Instead of the legions of digitized fatalities in a Michael Bay movie, we’re given a good look at a handful of real people. We’re close enough to see the fear on their faces, and we care. (One suspects that Synder and Nolan took a cue from Richard Donner’s original Superman movie, in which the destruction of most of California seems insignificant compared to what happens to Lois Lane.)

And maybe it’s time filmmakers—and other storytellers—gave the world a break. In his great Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson notes of Howard Hawks:

Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bonnard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.

Aside from the fact that Disney isn’t likely to show any of its Marvel characters smoking, this is still good advice to follow. You can raise the stakes as high as you want, but as disaster movies like 2012 have shown, you can destroy the entire planet and we still won’t care if you don’t give us characters to care about. Like most notes from readers, “raising the stakes” is less a way of solving a problem than an indication that deeper issues may lie elsewhere. And the real solution isn’t to blow up the world, or introduce hotter weapons, but to slow things down, show us a recognizable human being with needs we can understand, and maybe even let him roll a cigarette or two.

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

6 Responses

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  1. This is wonderful advice. The stakes don’t necessarily need to be so grandiose to the point of caricature, but rather, people need to care about the people in the story. People need to be invested in your characters’ fates.
    By the way, I love this summation of The Avengers: The final battle in The Avengers is theoretically supposed to determine the fate of the world, but it still comes down to our heroes fighting a bunch of aliens on flying scooters outside Grand Central Station.

    Christopher Lee Deards

    July 10, 2013 at 10:36 am

  2. Thanks so much—glad you liked it!


    July 11, 2013 at 9:12 am

  3. “The farmer’s eye twitches momentarily…”


    July 11, 2013 at 1:45 pm

  4. Well done.


    July 11, 2013 at 1:50 pm

  5. Sage advice that this writer really appreciated…thank you.

    Jet Eliot

    July 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  6. You’re welcome!


    July 12, 2013 at 10:56 am

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