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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 15: Complications & Higher Stakes

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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Previous Article in series.

Everyone says this is the hardest part of the screenplay to write. I respectfully disagree. As long as you've done your homework.

Now of course prior to the mid point, we've HOPEFULLY already had complications and higher stakes but now we're into the home stretch...

We've got to have more and even though this is arguable, my opinion is that they are much more important NOW than they were earlier.

Before we get into that however, let's understand the definition of complication:

complication: Something that introduces, usually unexpectedly, some difficulty, problem, change, etc.

You've got to remember that. Too many screenplays just don't do this ENOUGH. The complications just aren't there or if and when they are, they just aren't strong enough to keep us interested in how the Protagonist overcomes them on the way to accomplishing his or her goal.

Higher stakes are a little trickier to pin down because they really need to be comensurate with your Protagonist's want and or need and specifically related to his or her character makeup. This again, is where screenplays tend not to contain the necessary goods i.e., the stakes simply are not HIGH ENOUGH and or they're not well suited for the Protagonist you've given us.

Another problem higher stakes presents...

What set of stakes at what time? What may be higher stakes to YOU may not be higher stakes to me. You'd think this would be cut and dried but it ain't...

So what do you do?

Make it obvious.

In other words, out of your list of ever increasing higher stakes, map out the pecking order of that list so YOU absolutely know which stake is higher than the stake preceding it.

I guess we should read the definition of stakes just in case... stakes:
  • The prize awarded the winner of a contest or race.
  • Personal interest or involvement.
Okay... That's what stakes are. Something at risk. Could be death, reputation, prison, money, etc. Of course we already know what "higher" means but just in case you need a refresher...

higher: Far or farther from a reference point.

So let's take it to the extreme for a minute... What if in your story, all that was ever at risk was money? Let's take it a little further and say that the amount of money at risk gets higher as we progress through the story.

Certainly one could say that this story contains higher stakes since the amount of money keeps increasing but if your story doesn't have that much to do with the world of money, OR if you've not set the stage of your story so that the increasing amounts of money makes sense for your Protagonist to place himself or herself at risk for, then you're probably veering off track.

In other words, increasing amounts of money at risk makes perfect sense in a movie like WALL STREET but would it make as much sense in a movie like I AM LEGEND?

All I'm saying is to make sure the stakes make sense. They need to be stakes that MATTER to your Protagonist. That doesn't mean you should force your story so that your Protagonist cares about the stakes. The stakes must be comensurate to the Protagonist's character.

Indiana Jones doesn't really care about money as much as he cares about the item he's looking for and the people giving him a hand.

Even Bud Fox in WALL STREET topped out on the money when he realized Gecko was simply going to bankrupt the airline and put it out of business. At that point, money no longer mattered to him.

I can't tell you how many of us get this WRONG. A lot of us. Remember, more complications and higher stakes is what a lot of your story is going to be about... And even more important in the last half of your story so make sure the stakes increase but even more important than that, MAKE SENSE.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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