Anyway. So, where was I?
STAKES. That’s right. Stakes. Not for vampires, though, I’m sure those are useful to have lying around, just in case the zombie apocalypse turns into the vampire apocalypse. You don’t want to be the last one standing.
I’m talking about character stakes. What is important to a character, what is on the line if they fail at their goal. (Wait, characters have to have GOALS? SONOFA… ) Anyway. What happens if a character FAILS.
As I’m working on a new pilot, someone asked me about one of the main characters: “What’s at stake for X?” I paused. And then I started jabbering. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seriously thought about it. I hadn’t ASKED the question. That SPECIFIC question.
Now. I KNOW this character. I know this guy. (Ok, I think we know where this is heading…) I know what he wants, I know what drives him, but I didn’t ask the question: what happens if he LOSES…. How did I get this far and NOT ask that question? Because it’s a blind spot for me, to be frank.
As a writer I like finding and discovering characters “in motion” I like to say. By in motion, I mean finding them in scenes, hearing them talk, watching them do stuff. Being surprised by what I uncover. I put them in motion and see where they take me. But. BUT. This is also how I get stuck.
I get stuck because I don’t ask why. And it just occurred to me: I think I don’t ask because I think I like the mystery unfolding of these characters, but in reality, it’s the fucking work that I’m avoiding. I am avoiding the hard work of writing.
There. I said it. I admit it. I am avoiding the hard work of writing. And that’s really really really asking all of the questions that seem dumb and dry and boring. There are creative ways in asking those dumb and dry and boring questions, ways that I hope are fun. But. it’s the work and sometimes work isn’t fun. And I avoid the stuff that isn’t fun.
But, let’s circle back, leaving admission land, why are stakes important? Stakes act as a motivator. “I want this so I can have that.” “I need to do this, so this doesn’t happen.” We as an audience get a sense of why this is important to a character. In other words: why should we care? If there are no stakes, then the goal doesn’t matter. If the stakes really means something to the character, then by Zeus, that goal is really really important.
However, it’s interesting when it comes to TV. And cop shows. And I bring it up, because that’s what I’m working on. A show set in a cop’s world. Now, stakes are important, goals are important. In a cop show, I guess the obvious goal is to catch the murderer. But, what’s at stake? I guess letting someone get away with it, but for our cops… in the end… what’s the worst that happens to them…? They lose their jobs? They feel guilty? I don’t know. I guess allowing someone to get away with murder is a BAD thing… (that’s probably why the victims are always nice and good people so we REALLY REALLY want that killer caught) but that doesn’t strike me as a personal stake. That’s a philosophic stake. Or a professional stake. Not deeply personal.
I wonder if that’s why we get the occasional special episode trying to convince us that they are going to kill off a lead? Hm.
Well. I’m off to do some hard work. You too, m’k?