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Provides Fool-Proof Principles for Making Sure Your Dramatic Stakes Get Hotter

A huge number of scripts suffer from repetitive drama that fails to really raise the stakes and get the story cooking. Once again, this common problem can be largely remedied by searching your hero’s main want in life for answers. The simple question, “How does my hero recommit to his fight?” challenges the writer to imagine increasingly bold new choices as the story moves forward– a simple but powerful tool for creating a journey of both higher risk and also progressive conflict.

I’ve read countless scripts that set up a potentially juicy conflict for their heroes only to get deflated by a repetitive structure that repeats the same information over and over again. Many writers tend to back down in the intimidating face of Act II by allowing their hero to make similar choices with similar consequences. As always, this problem can be easily solved by returning to your hero’s main want. If you know the specific ways your hero approaches life, then you can constantly take your story a step further by asking, “How does my hero progressively recommit to his fight?” The key word here is “progressive,” meaning that each new step taken by your hero must must represent a new action taken on behalf of the familiar fight, a new choice of consistently greater risk.

Let’s take another look at Traffic to see how Stephen Gaghan uses progressive recommitment to tell a high-stakes story. This time, however, let’s turn the tables and examine Douglas’ dysfunctional daughter played by Erika Christenson. Gaghan smartly sets up Christenson’s specific brand of fighting in her very first scene: we watch as she indulges in recreational drug use and then willingly submits to recreational sex play. What does Christenson want? She wants to rebel, she wants to express herself, she wants to be everything that her repressed father will not allow – in short, she wants to get smashed and sleep around. This one scene sets up the model for her behavior that will be sustained all throughout the movie.

As you watch Traffic again, notice how every single one of Christenson’s scenes comes back to her need for rock-n-roll rebellion – not one moment wavers from this behavior. Even more importantly, each one of these scenes shows Christenson taking the behavior to a new level. You can almost envision her arc in bullet-point form:

  • Christenson recommits by experimenting with more lethal drugs
  • Christenson recommits by bringing the drugs into her own home
  • Christenson recommits by relocating from cushy rich estates to the tenement homes in a bad part of town
  • Christenson recommits by going from heavy petting to meaningless sex
  • Christenson recommits by going from sex with peers to literally whoring herself out to a dangerous pimp for drugs.

There are two essential elements to note here: 1) the beginning and ending bookends that show the full extent of Christenson’s progression, and 2) how each intermediate step presents a new action taken that builds on the specific behavior.

Compare Christenson’s first scene to her ultimate climax: as discussed before, we first meet Christenson in a posh living room surrounded by likeminded peers, engaged in casual drug use, making out with a bad seed; by the end of the movie, however, the wealthy home has transformed into a disgusting crack den; by the end of the movie, the casual drug use has transformed into searching for any available vein as she hovers near certain death; by the end of the movie, making out with a bad seed has transformed to prostituting her body to a dangerous drug dealer. Gaghan’s screenplay has crafted bookend scenes that perfectly complement one another: each element of Christenson’s established fight gets pushed to its most dangerous, most extreme form.

Between these two bookends, Gaghan provides a constant flow of new information with a series of recommitted choices that all pertain to her establiushed behavior. To put it simply, the opening bookend establishes the problem; each recommitted step essentially answers the question, “How is this problem getting worse?”; and the final bookend offers the most extreme statement of the problem.

Imagine how repetitive it would be if Christenson stayed in the rich living rooms making out with Topher Grace throughout the entire movie. Now imagine if Gaghan wasted time exploring facets of Christenson’s personality that weren’t a part of her established fight. Let’s say, for example, we take time out to indulge a scene that shows her codependence on a best friend – such information would feel awkward and misspent because 1) it was never immediately established as an issue to be developed throughout the story, and 2) it will not have resolution. Powerful storytelling clearly identifies the specific fight and then develops it with new, active choices that charters unexplored territory.

Let’s take a look at a few other examples of effective bookends: Will Hunting starts out his life in hiding by secretly solving math problems for which he will presumably not receive credit  by Act III, he has maintained his life in hiding by sabotaging actual job opportunities that could lead to an existence beyond his dreams; Will starts out holding his girlfriend at arm’s length with casual lies – by Act III, he completely alienates her with a cruel temper tantrum. The method of hiding remains the same – what changes is Will’s heightened level of commitment.

Exercise: Let’s imagine some bookends for your hero. What might a first scene look like that establishes your hero’s specific fight in life? Now what might it look like for your hero to take that same fight to the absolute end of the line, to its most extreme version? Translate all elements to their most obsessive form.

Exercise: Come up with a list of at least three ways that this fight worsens, five different decisions that show a bigger and bigger investment on the part of your hero, five steps that answer the question, “How is this problem getting worse?”

The beauty of approaching story from the point-of-view of the recommitted hero is that it immediately brings up another essential ingredient for high-stakes storytelling – progressive conflict. There is an inherent link between progressive recommitment and progressive conflict – namely, the hero recommits to his goal in the face of conflict; this very recommitment prompts heightened conflict that, in turn, causes the hero to recommit once again. A huge, huge factor in repetitive storytelling comes from flat-lined conflict that fails to pose an increasing threat to the hero.

If you want engaging, high stakes for your drama or your comedy or your action movie, you must present conflict that actively stands in the way of your hero pursuing his want and thereby forces him to take new action. Just like with the hero’s core behavior, this means you must clearly identify your primary sources of conflict so that you can then work on making sure that they all progress over the story.

Traffic very quickly presents Christenson’s primary source of conflict as her very own father. After getting caught attempting to dispose of an overdosed best friend, Christenson contends with Douglas’ stern warnings that the drug use must stop. As described, Christenson recommits by experimenting with worse substances and further bringing the drugs into her home; Douglas, in turn, responds by breaking into her personal space and foraging for drug paraphernalia – upon discovery, Douglas sends Christenson to rehab; Christenson, in turn, escapes from rehab and heads to the bad part of town where she ultimately turns into a veritable prostitute; Douglas, in turn, finally makes it a one-man mission to track her down.

The key thing to note here is the clear interplay between heightened conflict and recommitment – one determines the other. In both cases, you have to get very clear on which issues you intend to focus. So many scripts introduce areas of conflict that never progress, never get developed, never move beyond one or two scenes. Conversely, many scripts introduce last-minute conflict as some big test for their hero that has never appropriately been set up and developed. That’s excess fat, get rid of it. Real conflict means that it stands in the way of your hero and forces reactive behavior throughout the story.

Conflict must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Any source of conflict should receive a proper introduction, should escalate progressively to prompt the hero towards recommitment and should present a do-or-die climax of some kind. If the conflict lacks a beginning, then it ultimately feels as though it has come out of nowhere; if it lacks a middle, then it will fail to sufficiently progress throughout the movie; if it lacks a climactic ending, then it will feel unresolved. You must be very clear with yourself about which areas of conflict you want to explore – keep it simple, pare it down so that each antagonistic force gets on its legs and presents its own full arc.

To consider another of our ongoing examples: In In the Bedroom, Sissy Spacek seeks to punish, to make a point about the potential danger of her son getting involved with a girl who remains stalked by a jealous ex-husband – in the very first scene of the movie, said ex-husband menacingly shows up to spoil up an otherwise peaceful family function (beginning); Spacek recommits to her goal by insisting that the relationship end; conflict builds as the ex-husband threatens and ultimately kills Nick Stahl (middle); Spacek recommits to her punishing ways by blaming her husband for their son’s death; the conflict builds again when the ex-husband avoids jail time on a technicality (climax); Spacek again commits to her role as the Punisher when she conspires to murder him. Even in an art-house film like In the Bedroom that lacks the more conventional hero-agaist-villain structure, we still see two essential elements at work: 1) the hero progressively recommitting to a specific pattern of behavior and 2) a specific source of conflict that grows progressively insurmountable.

As always, specificity and consistency are key: Christenson never deviates from her role as the druggie/sexual rebel; Spacek never deviates from her role as the Punisher; both journeys of recommitment align with their established patterns of behavior. Likewise, Christenson deals with very consistent opposition from her father; Spacek deals with very consistent opposition from the jealous ex-husband. Stay on your established course!

And, once again, notice those bookends: Spacek starts out as a busybody that tries to insist that her son should break up with his girlfriend due to the presence of the dangerous ex-husband; Spacek ends the movie as a vengeful conspirator that helps arrange the murder of this ex-husband  do you see the salient progression of both a specific behavior and also a specific conflict?

Exercise: What are your three primary sources of conflict? For each one of them, come up with at least three ways that it enables your hero to recommit to his goal. What is the beginning of each source of conflict? The middle? The climax?

To review, dynamic high-stakes storytelling is as simple as a few key elements:

  • Clearly establish your hero’s fight in life.
  • Imagine progressive steps of recommitment to this specific fight (no excess fat, no one-scene detours)
  • Clearly establish the sources of conflict
  • Imagine progressive steps of heightened conflict that enable your hero to recommit in response.

Once you have these elements in place – new, dramatic choices; new, progressive conflict; consistent characterization of both protagonist and antagonist – you are well on the way to exciting, thematically-unified storytelling.

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