Desire, Stakes & Ticking Clocks
by Seth Renshaw by Director of Development of Benaroya Pictures
1. Desire - What do they want?
Make sure, at some point, we understand clearly what your main character wants. Seems simple - but it's amazing how easy it can be to forget to do this - or assume that it's clear to the reader when it isn't.
Tell us right away, tease it out over time, but in one way or another let it be known. And let it be known with intention, because the reader - consciously or unconsciously - will be trying to figure it out and will look for clues as to what it is in your character's words and actions. Just like they do when meeting a person in real life.
Knowing this, you can be intentional with how you frame the reader's understanding of your protagonist's desire. Make sure you dramatically carry the "shape" of that desire throughout the story as it both defines the character's behavior and helps bind us to their story.
As you do this, we will inherently relate to your protagonist because, like your protagonist, we all want something too.
2. Stakes - What happens if they don't get it?
A desire's "importance" can be measured by the consequences of not fulfilling it. And to do this, the world doesn't have to end... But it can.
In the end, the most effective stakes tend to be simple, specific and relevant to your character and their story. Because even the biggest stakes in the world frequently tie back to elemental fears.
Spoiler Alert: ARMAGEDDON's climax is arguably effective not because the world is at stake and ultimately saved - or that Bruce Willis dies - but because a father realizes he must step aside and let another man take his place in his daughter's heart. Something he refused to allow when we first met him.
Whatever you decide, make sure we're clear about what happens if your hero fails - and ideally, it's tied to a relatable human fear.
With clear stakes, you'll have a tool to help you ratchet up the suspense as needed and keep us reading.
3. Ticking Clock - How much time do they have to get it?
This is something that can be adjusted as your story progresses...
Maybe they have more time, maybe they have less all of a sudden. The only thing that isn't usually helpful for a dramatic story is if they have all the time in the world. (Unless the terror of that prospect is what you're exploring...)
Consider time in your story as a tool to box your characters in, to compress the events - to add urgency and to help us monitor progress.
School, job, kids, career, retirement, death - we all live our lives against an ever-ticking, merciless clock. And so should the characters in your story. Remind us how close we are to peril and we will turn the page in an effort to outrun it.
These are tools, lenses through which to view a story under construction. And, to mix metaphors further, techniques in the complex magic trick of getting the reader to care.
Your reader could read anything, they could be doing anything else right now. Why should they spend another second reading your story? I believe that if you keep Desire, Stakes and a Ticking Clock in mind as you put the pieces together, you'll have a greater understanding of what you can do to help the reader care about what your characters are going through.
It's the difference between something like...
"Sarah runs through a casino where her mother used to work."
"Sarah runs through a casino wired for demolition in five minutes, looking for the millions of dollars in poker chips her dead mother hid for her there."
Thanks for reading,