What Are the Stakes?
This past Friday, we watched the movie In Time, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried. It only got 3 out of 5 stars on Amazon, so we weren’t expecting much. I was mildly entertained, but I’m still glad I watched the movie, because I came away with a stronger sense of what makes a good story: stakes.
The concept of this movie is pretty cool, actually. It’s a dystopian (sort of) future, where time is the currency of the world. Under the skin of each person’s forearm is a digital clock that’s ticking down the minutes. If you want a cup of coffee, that’ll cost you 2 minutes. A bus ride, 2 hours. Cha-ching. The Justin character lives day-to-day in the “ghetto” on about 24 hours of time per day. He ends up saving the life of a wealthy guy, and that man gives Justin all of his time, because he’s done with immortality.
So, I don’t want to get too much into the plot — which had the classic three-act structure of all Hollywood action movies. This isn’t a movie review. What I want to say is that I came away from this movie thinking it fell short. I’d give it the 3 out of 5 stars, too. But why? It’s a great concept, it had the plot points, some decent story stuff between the Justin character and the daughter of the richest man in the country. Blah blah blah. Why wasn’t I invested in it? Why didn’t I care that much about the characters the way I did, for example, of the Matt Damon character in The Bourne Identity?
Stakes. That is, the stuff worth fighting for. As Janet Burroway explains in Writing Fiction, “Drama equals desire plus danger.” The character should have desire and not only does something need to be standing in the way of fulfilling that desire, but there have to be consequences if the desire is not fulfilled and likewise some other result is the desire is fulfilled.
Drama equals desire plus danger.
In the Bourne Identity, Matt Damon’s character has a strong desire to find out who he is. His identity and memory have been stolen from him in order to turn him into a killing machine, and he seeks justice. In the movie In Time, the Justin Timberlake character has lost his mother because her clock ran out and he wants to make those at the top pay. But not much is at stake if those people at the top don’t pay. Life would actually just keep going on in this world the same as it always had. The screen play writers would have been wiser to focus on the Amanda Seyfried character, who is the daughter of the richest man alive. She teams up with Justin’s character to steal time from her father’s banks and give it to the poor. She has more at stake because she has more to lose — her relationship with her father, her fancy lifestyle, the assurance of immortality.
I realize that I’m using action films to get at a concept that’s important to me on a literary level. But it applies. Just last week in my writing group, one of the questions raised about my latest revision on a short story was, “What are the stakes?” Most stories from literary fiction have conflict, crisis, resolution. There are struggles between characters where the power shifts back and forth. And as Burroway points out, power takes many forms. A child can have power over a parent. A sick person can have power over her caretaker. It doesn’t have to be the good vs. evil of action films.
And so, as you revise your story, ask yourself, what are the stakes. What will be gained? What will be lost? This is what I’m writing at the top of my story and will be considering in the next (sixth) revision!