By Jami Gold
Want to draw readers into our story? Of course! To do so, we often attempt to make the stakes bigger. Typically, that’s a decent approach.
But imagine opening a book and the first paragraph of the story introduces a character hanging off a cliff by their fingertips. Ooo, jumping into the story in medias res, straight into the thick of some action. That’s good…right?
Or maybe not.
After all, readers don’t know who this character is and have no reason to care about their fate. For all readers know, this might be the villain who’s trying to escape justice and when saved here, will return by the end of the story to cause more problems for the real protagonist. Or maybe they’re a superhero who can fly, making this situation no big deal. Or maybe they’re faking their dilemma and have their feet solidly planted on a ledge. Or…
In other words, stakes alone aren’t enough to pull readers into our story. So how can we make our stakes matter? Let’s look at the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once for 3 lessons on how to make our stakes—and our story—matter.
The Brilliance of Everything Everywhere All at Once
There are countless reasons why Everything Everywhere All at Once is a fantastic movie—earning its glowing reviews and 95% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes—but since we can’t take up multiple posts, we’re just talking about how some of those reasons apply to stakes. (I’ll be avoiding specifics so as not to spoil the story too much, but the movie is available for sale now, so if you haven’t seen it yet, definitely check it out.)
The movie starts with small, family-drama type of stakes. None of the characters of the movie’s family are getting along with each other, and we see the context to understand why and sympathize with each of them.
Then out of the blue, the main character, Evelyn, is confronted with ridiculously huge stakes: the entire multiverse (not just the Earth, galaxy, or universe, but multiverse!) is at risk without her help. But she has no reason to care about those stakes—they’re too big and impersonal. As seen in the trailer, her hilarious response is: “Very busy today. No time to help you.”
Later in the movie, however, the tropes of huge, world-ending stakes are upended. Rather than the Climax being a battle for the fate of the multiverse, the movie reverts to being about small, family-drama-sized stakes.
The Change of Stakes Shouldn’t Have Worked
Shifting the stakes from “save the world/multiverse” to a question of whether these family members can come together with meaningful connections—such as sharing a mutual hug with real love and understanding—could have felt like a “bait and switch” to the audience. On many levels, changing the stakes from big to small shouldn’t have worked. As writers, we’re taught to raise the stakes, and the easiest interpretation of raising stakes is to make them bigger.
However, as the many positive reviews of the movie attest, rather than leaving audience members disappointed at the stakes being so small again, many who never cry in movies are left weeping because even though the stakes are small, they’re also extremely strong. They matter to the characters and to the audience.
3 Tips for Making Stakes Matter
What makes the movie’s stakes so strong? How did the movie make the shift from huge stakes to small stakes work?
Here are three lessons to take away from how the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once (EEAaO) used stakes:
Lesson #1: Stakes Must Have Context
If we think back to the introduction above for why a character hanging off a cliff wouldn’t necessarily make readers care, we can see how dropping readers into a supposedly high-stakes situation in a story’s first paragraphs meant that they wouldn’t have any context for understanding. They wouldn’t know whether the character was one they should root for—or root against.
In the movie EEAaO, the first act introduces the family members in ways that make the audience understand and sympathize with their struggles. The audience learns every characters’ goals, motivations, and initial conflicts. That information gives the audience the context for watching new conflicts and struggles and understanding what’s at stake.
Similarly, in our stories, whenever we introduce a new conflict or struggle, we need to include enough context so that readers understand the consequences of failure.
Lesson #2: Personal Stakes Mean More
Going back to our cliff-hanging example, readers picking up the book and seeing that situation on page one also wouldn’t know what the character risked by hanging off the cliff—was it life or death? Or just an inconvenience?
In EEAaO, Evelyn rejects the initial “call to adventure” because the stakes of the fate of the multiverse are too big for her to relate to in a personal way. She doesn’t fully embrace her role in the story—shifting from reactive to proactive—until she feels a connection to the situation. Audience members have similar reactions: The whole multiverse dilemma feels like an interesting story, sure, but the reveal of Evelyn’s personal connection to the stakes feels like a gut punch.
In our stories, if the stakes (consequences of failure) don’t matter to the character, we’ll struggle to make them matter to readers. So we want to ensure that readers understand not just the consequences of failure but why those consequences matter to the character.
Lesson #3: The More Readers Care about the Character, the More They’ll Care about the (Personal) Stakes
With our cliff-hanging example, even if we included context about the situation and made our character care about the risks, readers still wouldn’t be drawn in as much as they would if the dilemma happened several pages later. Humans tend to care more about what happens to friends and family than to strangers, so readers need a chance to get to know characters and relate to them before really caring about their situations and stakes.
In EEAaO, the stakes in the movie shift from small and personal to too-big and impersonal, then big and personal, and finally back to small-ish (but still much bigger than in Act One) and personal. This shift works because we’ve grown to care about all these characters so much. We’ve seen—and related to—their struggles and pain, and we don’t want to see them give up, fail, or be hurt.
In fact, one of the major themes of EEAaO’s story is an exploration what makes things matter. The family members each confront the fear that nothing they do matters, that life is just a collection of empty experiences. By the end, they each discover how becoming closer to each other—caring about each other—is what makes those seemingly pointless experiences, and life itself, matter.
For our stories, not every story or genre lends itself to deep point-of-view or other techniques to create emotional connections between readers and characters. But any amount of connection we create between readers and our characters will help strengthen our story’s stakes.
Stakes Don’t Have to Be “Big” to Be Strong
If we take away nothing else, the movie proves that stakes don’t have to be big to be strong. As I’ve talked about on my blog before, to strengthen our story’s stakes without going “bigger,” we can check:
- Do consequences of failure exist for each of our characters’ goals?
- Does the character(s) have something to lose to create a risk?
- Are the negative consequences expressed on the page (do readers fully know how they’d affect the story)?
- Are they personal to the character(s) (or do they become personal as we raise the stakes throughout the story)?
- Do the stakes force characters to make sacrifices or difficult decisions that reveal their depths to readers?
- Is the character(s) shown as caring about those consequences?
- Have we set up readers to care about the characters?
If a character cares about a stake, and readers care about the character, we don’t need a multiversal threat to make a stake strong enough to pull readers through our pages. *smile*
Have you seen Everything Everywhere All at Once? What did you think of the movie? Do you have any insights to add to this discussion about stakes? Do you have any questions about using stakes?
Jami Gold, after muttering writing advice in tongues, decided to become a writer and put her talent for making up stuff to good use, such as by winning the 2015 National Readers’ Choice Award in Paranormal Romance for her novel Ironclad Devotion.
To help others reach their creative potential as well, she’s developed a massive collection of resources for writers. Explore her site to find worksheets—including the popular Romance Beat Sheet with 80,000+ downloads—workshops, and over 1000 posts on her blog about the craft, business, and life of writing. Her site has been named one of the 101 Best Websites for Writers by Writer’s Digest.