“Have a Body Hit the Floor”
A few weeks back, we were talking about this tidbit of wisdom from screenwriter Jack Epps: “You can’t do everything in one draft.”
The corollary, we said, is to focus on only one aspect of your manuscript/screenplay/videogame at a time. One aspect per draft.
Today let’s talk about stakes.
(Ideally you and I should have thought deeply about this before we even started Draft #1. But let’s be real. Most of us plunge in and swim like hell for the far shore. So maybe we need to regroup for Drafts #2 through #15 and revisit certain essentials.)
What are “stakes” anyway?
The stakes for a character are what he or she stands to gain with success—or lose with failure.
My own rule of thumb: the stakes for the hero must always be life and death. If possible, they should be life and death for every character in the story.
When I first came out to Tinseltown, I was struggling with a spec script. I just couldn’t make it interesting. I told my friend, the late director Ernie Pintoff. He said, “Have a body hit the floor.”
What he meant was raise the stakes.
Stories are lame when the stakes are low.
I listened to Ernie. I threw a dead body into the story. It worked so well, I chucked in another one. Pretty soon the corpses were dropping all over the place. Every time someone died, the story got better.
One reason was that I had to build in backstories to explain what was behind this wholesale bloodletting. To my delight, these prequels wound the story tighter and sexier. No wonder the motorcycle cop in the French Quarter got his head blown off; he was grabbing something on the side with the trumpet player’s girlfriend.
I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos on HBO Signature. One of the things that David Chase and his writers do extremely well is to set the stakes high, not just for Tony, but for every character in the series. Carmela, Dr. Melfi, Christopher, Uncle Junior, Livia, Big Pussy, even the kids, Meadow and A.J. At any moment each one is poised on a knife edge. Carmela making out with the wallpaper guy, Pussy wearing a wire: OMG, if Tony finds out, it’s everybody’s ass!
Stakes are related to jeopardy. The Sopranos does a masterful job at this too. Every character is in jeopardy all the time.
This is no accident. It would not surprise me to learn that in the writers’ room while these shows were being put together was a big board headed JEOPARDY, with each character’s name in a column underneath. A script would not go before the cameras until every slot had been filled in.
It’s critical, as well, that the reader/audience understands what the stakes are for each character at all times. Don’t be vague. If the stakes are hazy, write a scene that makes them clear. This is what I mean be devoting one draft to this topic only. Go over the entire story, asking yourself, “Are the stakes high and clear for all characters from start to finish?”
When the stakes are high and clear, the reader/audience’s emotions become involved.
Sports journalists know this. Broadcasting a tennis match or a Little League baseball game, the announcers will always focus on “the story,” meaning some drama within the event that possesses high stakes. Sportswriters will stress in their coverage something like: “If Team X loses, the coach will get fired, the goalie will kill himself, the entire nation of Ghana will go up in flames.”
Bud Greenspan covering the Olympics always went for “personal stories.” These weren’t really about “background” or “color.” They were about stakes. What would it mean to Miroslav Gregorovich, whose mother was killed by sniper fire in Sarajevo and who grew up eating rats that he hunted on the street, lost his right leg from the knee down to frostbite, and was raised by his grandmother who fed him turnips because they could get nothing else … what would it mean to him (and to his grandmother) if he could medal in the 115-pound wrestling class?” Now when you watch this totally obscure event, you’re on the edge of your seat because the stakes are so high.
A final note about “life and death.” The stakes don’t have to be literally mortal. But they must feel like life and death to the specific character. If Faye Dunaway loses her daughter to John Huston’s incestuous depredations in Chinatown, she will not literally die. Her fate will be even worse.
Destruction of the soul. Those are the ultimate stakes.