Pixar Rules of Story # 16: Raise the Stakes!
What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
Today, Rule #16 asks us to think about the stakes of the story. More specifically, what is at stake for our protagonist – what do they stand to lose if they fail at their quest? We saw in Rule #1: Characters you Admire that it is the obstacles to achieving their goals, and the struggle they go through to beat them, that endear us to characters in stories. By throwing bigger and bigger obstacles at them, and making it harder and harder for them to achieve their goals we, as writers, can generate greater and greater sympathy and empathy for our characters and, most importantly, ensure our viewers are fully invested in the story.
This is the same regardless of whether or not we are supposed to love or loathe a protagonist, throwing obstacles at them and making them struggle will generate empathy in the audience. We don’t have to like a character to understand them.
And it is not just physical obstacles. The struggle the protagonist faces will also come from within via their internal needs and be wrapped up in their external WANTS. This is important, as it allows us to bombard our protagonist from all sides with a variety of obstacles, making for more interesting and complex characters. And reinforces the need to develop convincing, well formed characters as we learnt in Rule #15: Know you Characters.
And this is where coming up with a worthy Nemesis is vital. The biggest and best obstacle to a protagonist is a worthy nemesis who is in direct opposition to the protagonist. You don’t just want someone making life difficult for your protagonist, but someone who is actively seeking to stop them achieving their goals as they too are fighting to reach their own, and where the only way to do that is to stop the protagonist achieving theirs.
To ensure the nemesis is an effective obstacle, it helps to make them stronger and give them the advantage over your protagonist. Make the protagonist work damn hard to win out. Don’t make it too easy and make sure success, or failure, is held back until the very last moment. The audience will get bored if it is clear the protagonist will prevail from the moment the nemesis appears. But throw them into a conflict in which they start well, but then get knocked back, rise again and get kicked down to the very depths of despair – the “all is lost” moment – and the audience will be in the palm of your hand.
I’ve used the example of The Man of Steel before, but think it gives a good example of how you can pit your protagonist against a variety of obstacles to raise the stakes.
Clark Kent is on Earth and an outcast. He wants to find himself but, as a young man, he has obstacles thrown in his way that prevent him being himself and discovering who he really is. Obstacles that are so strong, with very high stakes – his adoptive father’s life. As he gets older, and he is starting to figure this stuff out, the bigger obstacle of General Zod appears. A Nemesis in direct opposition to the protagonist. Clark wants to be welcome in his new life, his adoptive planet, the life he knows. Whereas Zod wants to take that away and create a new Krypton in the ashes of the Earth – the life he knows. And it isn’t easy for Superman to prevail. He may have super powers, but so does Zod, and so do the soldiers that come with him. Soldiers who are trained to defend their planet, species and way of life. Superman is out-numbered, and out-gunned and we fear for his ability to prevail. Even though we know he is going to, the obstacles and stakes that are raised – i.e. losing his friends, planet and life – mean we are invested in the story and empathise with Clark.
Of course, this works the other way as well. The protagonist doesn’t have to prevail, but the work they put in to the struggle and the obstacles they face will mean the audience still feels empathy for them and the emotional wallop of a failure can be just as powerful as the euphoria of a victory.
So, what is it that your protagonist is striving for? Put something at stake, something important, and then throw everything you can at them to make sure the struggle is as hard as it can be and that the audience identify and empathise with them. Take the audience to the edge of despair with your protagonist and then let them share in the agony or the ecstasy of the denouement.
Conflict creates Drama.
It’s a lot more fun to watch.
And a lot more fun to write.
How do you make your characters struggle and raise the stakes?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #17 – Practice!
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)