You’ll Never Believe How Important High Stakes are to your Story!


by Diana Black

Bowling Saturday?


But if we don’t lead with you, we’re history, man.

If I go, she’ll leave, take the kids.

Now some of the audience might say, “bring it on, let the bitch go.” They probably have shitty marriages. But others would immediately empathize – they’ve been there, subjected to emotional blackmail. And what do we want from our audience, guys? Empathy!

The Protagonist has to go through hell – that’s a given. They need to be vacillating constantly between triumph and disaster and then more disaster and wait… yes, more disaster – until they finally let go of their emotional baggage, sloth – physical and psychological, and just get on with it and – lo and behold – triumph… and a better boy or girl because of it.

But disaster means ‘jack-shit’ if the audience doesn’t give a damn. So we have to have stakes – and not an obstacle they can trip over but seriously big ones AND there has to be serious hell to pay if they lose. This is a do-or-die battle of wits and we’re supplying the bullets – the words and actions.

Notice in the above ‘off the cuff’ mediocre dialogue, how dilemma seems to be associated with high stakes. The choices – lose the match n your mate’s devotion versus lose the wife n kids – both bad. What if it wasn’t just any old match to decide who’s footing the bill for the beer and pretzels?

Let’s assume it’s a tad more important – possibly the lead-up to an all-important tournament in ‘Small Town’…OR…what if it’s Major League Baseball?! That would mean ‘not playing’ was seriously “we’re history” for both the team (“we’re”) and for David. Would he just say “No” so easily? What kind of wife would leave with the kids under that scenario – there’s a lot of money to be made as an ‘All Star’ and relatively little selling sporting goods in a bricks and mortar.

What time Saturday?

DAVID: Andrew hasn’t been up all season – don’t you think it’s time he got out of the bleaches?

CHUCK: He’s a dipshit on 2 nd !
(Looks at David – who’s evading eye contact)
What the fuck are you trying to say?

I won’t be there.

Wtf! If we don’t lead with you, we’re history, man!

I can’t, all right! CHUCK: Why the f…. not?!

If I go, she’ll leave, take the kids… and take me to the cleaners.

Okay we’ve upped the stakes. Also notice the use of decisive ‘action words’ – “we’re history” (semi sub-textual for: we won’t just lose ‘this’ but they’ll be no later ‘this’s’) and for David’s line, “she’ll leave…take…take…” In both cases, no ‘maybe’s’ – it’s a dead cert.

Going wishy-washy with “might leave…” and “might take…” etc. means no stakes and no drama. Who’d give a rat’s? No one. The characters wouldn’t. The reader and viewer alike wouldn’t – it will be a ‘PASS’… on us aspiring screenwriters and for the viewer who’ll be busy wearing out the remote (if it was ever green-lit, which is highly unlikely).

For your current script – make a copy – archive it. Btw always do that before any major alteration – sometimes our gut instincts were ‘spot on’ and there’s always the danger we’ll get confused and end up burying or ditching the ‘gold’. Then as a polishing exercise with your new draft, go through and ensure that every scene is (or supporting) high stakes and every action and word spoken – decisive.


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer currently taking Larry Brody’s Master Class.