Sunday, May 19, 2013

Story stakes: and the movie Premium Rush

Without the careful use of ESCALATING STAKES, the movie Premium Rush is just two guys on bikes chasing each other around New York City. And since most of us know, or think we know, pretty much all of what New York looks like from one movie or another, it’s now become as normal as your hometown.

Stakes are, quite simply, “What’s at stake?” Thus proving that nothing about writing is rocket science. (I thought you might like that little gem-o-wisdom.) And if your stakes grow and grow and grow… Well, then, your story’s drama level grows with it. Add to that relationship conflict, conflict between other characters and conflict with your antagonist and your story’s drama is multifaceted.

Back to Premium Rush.
1.       Bike messenger gets a package to deliver. Goes and picks it up the envelope from the Asian chick at the university.
Stakes level: 0
2.       13 mins: Guy in a suit asks for the envelope, but the messenger won’t hand it over.
Stakes level: 1

3.       Guy in a suit catches up to the bike messenger in his car. Still wants the envelope. This is the first indication it’s serious – because the suit guy won’t quit. But our bike messenger gets away.
Stakes level: 2
4.       23 mins: The bike messenger goes to a police station, where he discovers the suit guy is a cop. The stakes are raised but still, the bike messenger gets away. Clearly something seriously hinky is going on.
Stakes level: jumps to a 4.
5.       37 mins: Bike messenger tries to give the package back. The Asian chick cries when someone has picked it up and is sending it to the wrong place.
Stakes level: 5
6.       50 mins: She asks the messenger, “Why do you care?” And he decides to get involved personally. She is trying to bring her son to America.
Stakes level jumps to a 7.
7.       Bike messenger chases the envelope to try and get it back. Two bike messengers clash with the suit cop and another bike cop.
Stakes level: 8
8.       1 hr: Bike messenger crashes and is loaded into an ambulance. Suit cop questions him to find out who took the envelope.  
Stakes level: 8.5
9.       Bike messenger gets his bike back, but it’s busted up. He takes the envelope and his girlfriend’s bike.  
Stakes level: 8
10.   1hr 15:Big confrontation between the suit cop and a big posse of bike messengers. The cop gets killed by Asian mob guys and the little boy is cleared to come to America.
Stakes level: 10
11.   Happy ending: all is now right in our bike messenger’s world.

Add in the annoyance of the bike cop who keeps chasing our messenger and the girl troubles he’s having, as well as the antagonist’s personal issues with gambling and the Asian chick’s immigration problems and you actually have a full story. Instead of a guy doing tricks on his bike in an urban setting.

As you can see from the movie, the stakes gradually rise, and in places jump. Then the drama/tension levels off, just before the big climax. And so, the progression of stakes in your novel should follow much the same pattern.

Go ahead: ask your character. What’s at stake? And then turn the heat up. 

Lisa Phillips is a wife and mom of two littles who moonlights during nap time as an Inspirational Romantic Suspense author. You can find her at or on Twitter @lisaphillipsbks

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