Peggy Bechko Wants Writers to Raise the Stakes & “Make It Kick!”

by Peggy Bechko

See what we’re doing here? “Raise the stakes…?” Sure ya do.

You heard me and you know what I mean. To make a story really jump, to grab the viewer’s or reader’s attention, you, the writer, have to get in there and raise the stakes. Make it really personal for the ‘hero’ or ‘heroine.” There’s no better way to really rope ‘em in.

So how, you ask, to you raise the stakes like that?

Ask yourself the question, what are the most personal things, things that affect the everyday lives of the people who’ll be watching that movie or reading that book, that can happen if the character fails at whatever his task is?

It’s so obvious I can make a list:

He’ll lose his job or his life savings or decimate his kid’s college fund, or all of the above.

His family or friends will think ill of him or be disappointed in him. He’ll never be able to face them or hold his head up again.

Something he does will trigger events that will crush someone else – and he decides to do it because the consequences if he doesn’t are too grave.

His reputation will be ruined.

He’ll lose someone he cares deeply about whether through disassociation or death. Whatever it is may cause a wife to divorce or a child to be lost because of lack of treatment for illness.

He’ll be forced to give up a treasured goal or position. He might lose his CEO position and his golden parachute if it’s discovered he’s been embezzling. He might lose his cherished school janitor position. You choose.

He could create a situation that could cause an innocent to pay for his mistake. Maybe he cares. Maybe he doesn’t. Could be a great story either way.

It’s possible he’ll find himself in a position where he has to take a big risk in order to right the untenable situation. It could be a physical risk, a financial risk, a lifestyle risk or a combination. Think of all the situations where taking the risk can result in the ultimate good or the ultimate bad.

Perhaps he forces another to take a risk as great as getting killed in his stead. Maybe he’s in the arm or the police or a firefighter. Perhaps he’s on a rescue team or a crew member on a cruise ship. There are lots of ways that can play out.

Those are a whole lot of the basics. No doubt you can think of more especially if you think back over the books and movies you’ve read (and don’t forget the history books!).

But the key component here is it’s very personal. And by virtue of that simple fact it becomes a much more gripping story element. It’s something the readers and viewers can identify with. All of the above are things people may have experienced in their own lives and if the writer is skilled enough to ratchet those stakes up high enough those kinds of things are what will keep people glued to the screen or turning pages.

The problem or the stakes s to speak, being real, are internalized and for the viewer/reader it turns into a nail-biting experience.

So don’t alienate the audience by putting emotional distance between them and the story. Make it very personal.

Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor.  Learn more about her HERE. And don’t forget Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle.  Grab your copy now!