Stakes vs Motivation in Screenwriting

takes, it turns out, are everything.

When I think about what’s at stake in my life. What I could lose that would just devastate me. It’s the simplest things: Health, love and home. None of the other details really, truly matter.

No accident that those are always the stakes in any big movie.

Previously I posted about Writing For Americans. Thoughts on trying to overcome my passive Canadian upbringing to write more active protagonists. Seems despite my best efforts, I’m still struggling to escape my old ways.

My best efforts included constantly asking myself – scene for scene – what’s my character’s motivation? Is it strong enough? If you’ve set a hero on a journey, what’s keeping him on that journey beat for beat?

Motivation. That’s what I told myself it had to be about.

So whenever I’d discuss scripts with Manager I’d pay close attention to notes about the stakes. That’s the word he kept using. Stakes. What are the stakes? Increase the stakes. And I’d echo back: Got it, I’ll work on the protagonist’s motivation.


Concept unclear.

I was not listening.

Motivation and stakes are not the same thing.

However without much consideration, I’d decided they were exactly the same thing.

A while back I told you about an emotional debacle concerning Script #2. It was dead in the water. This week I dusted it off for another look. Manager’s problem with it had always seemed to be the lack of stakes.

Lack of motivation is of course all I heard at the time.

On review I really thought about that critical difference between those two factors. Motivation is something that propels us forward. Forward equals active protagonist, I’d decided. But here’s the thing I’ve realized:

Motivation is relative. Stakes are absolute.

As a writer I can argue that a character is gonna run into a burning building to look for survivors because he’s a good Samaritan. He’s just that good a guy. But his motivation relative to the person reading the script may be completely unrealistic.

However, the actions of a hero that rushes into a burning building because his wife is on the top floor screaming for her life do not need explaining. He absolutely has something tremendous at stake.

That little difference means everything.

And once you know to look for it you can’t watch a Hollywood movie without seeing it in every scene. Every moment that passes the hero is not fighting to gain something, they’re fighting not to lose it. And that something is always one of those big name stakes: Health. Love. Home.

Kind of embarrassing I’m only now trying to stress this in my writing. I might have had an option on the table years ago.

Not to say great stories can’t be written about motivation over life and death stakes. But you may be hard pressed to get them made into blockbuster Hollywood films these days.

Perhaps I’d have realized this distinction sooner if I had more at stake in own life. I’ve got plenty of motivation. No question about that. Things at stake, however, not so much. Which is a good thing. Something I’m fortunate to have. Health, love and home.

My life would make a super boring Hollywood movie, though.


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