Establish your stakes.

Why stakes are important even if you are not Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So let’s establish the stakes up front. For the writer it couldn’t be more important. Your audience is at stake. Unless they understand why the story matter to the characters, unless they understand the stakes, they will switch off the TV or e-reader (or put the paperback back on the shelf).

I am currently reading an excellent book on writing, Wired for Story, which looks to apply lessons learned from cognitive science about how we interact with stories to the creation of fiction. But  it’s nowhere near as difficult a read as that makes it sound. It is aimed at novelists but most of the ideas apply to anyone working with story from sketch writers to feature writers.

One of those lessons is this: Whether it’s a sketch or an epic novel, you audience will always want to know three things straight away: What’s happening? Who is it happening to? And why does it matter?

This means that for your main character, and most other characters we need to know as soon as they appear what they want and why. Otherwise it’s just people doing stuff we don’t understand for reasons we don’t know. We can get that for free by looking out of the window.

You can of course have false stakes which mislead us and the true reasons revealed later. If you do this the false motives we are shown at first have to believable, just as believable as the real ones, otherwise the danger is that no one sees your really clever reveal because we all switched off twenty minutes ago.

Think this doesn’t apply to sketches? I think it applies double – in such a short form you have to get everything clear even quicker. Pick your favourite sketch I would bet the stakes/motivation of the characters (or at least the main character) is clear from the start (or we think it is, even if it is eventually revealed otherwise).

For example:

  • Dead Parrot sketch – wanting to return a dead parrot vs wanting to not have to accept the return
  • Lou and Andy from Little Britain – Lou wants to look after Andy, who wants to establish his independance (althouth, also wants to keep on being looked after, this inner conflict brings some interesting depth to this relationship even in a silly sketch, but that’s a whole other blog post.)

And so on… (this is your chance to disprove me in the comments…)

So, the practical conclusion. Now when reviewing my own work I check: Have I explained the stakes right at the start? Can they be put in a sentence or two? And would almost any reasonable reader pick up on them?

Because (just like an episode of Buffy) no stakes, no story.