Learning how to raise the stakes in a story is hugely important. The problem that storytellers encounter more often then any other when telling their stories is failing to show the audience that there were high stakes.
When you find yourself going “Whoa…!” during a story, or when you find yourself moving to the edge of your seat anxious to hear what happens next, or when you feel tears forming in your eyes from something that happened in a story, it is most likely because there were high stakes.
We sense high stakes when the protagonist of the story is emotionally invested in what is unfolding. On a recent episode of “The Moth,” a woman ended a story by describing listening to the 911 recording of her husband who was drowning in their flooding house. Listening to this story brought me to tears because the woman made it clear throughout the story how much she loved her husband. She had SHOWN moments of connection and disconnection, moments of intimacy and conflict, that made us feel the love between her and her husband. She showed a scene of her husband making her laugh, scenes of her husband teaching her life lessons, scenes of her husband moving her to action. By the time we got to the 911 tape, it was clear that her husband meant the world to her. There was something to be lost (her husband’s life) at stake and something to be gained (her husband’s example to her to live a life of “light”) at stake. Those are very high stakes indeed.
You can show how much hope or fear or love or hate you invested in something by showing the audience your fantasies. Think about how often we are shown the daydreams of the protagonist in the movies. She envisions herself running into the arms of “Prince Charming” or seeing her deceased mother standing in front of her again providing her with inspiration to overcome some form of adversity.
You can show how much emotional investment you have in something by showing an audience what was running through your mind. “If I say yes to meeting with my estranged father too soon, I’ll look weak, like I want to surrender. But if I wait too long, I’ll look like I’m carrying a grudge and that I am not ready to forgive ….”
You can show emotional investment in physical reactions. For example: “His fists clenched. Her eyes narrowed. My throat swelled up. My palms were sweating.”
And you can show emotional investment in little choices you make: “That morning, I poured a cup of coffee… then threw it down the drain. I didn’t want anything making me even the slightest bit shaky before meeting her.”
“As we drove away, I made a point of checking the time on the dashboard. Just in case he tried anything shady, I’d be able to say where I was and when.”
So when you feel your story needs more “oomph,” it’s probably because the stakes are not high enough. In other words, from the point of view of the protagonist, there’s not a lot to be lost or gained — nor is there a lot to hope for or worry about. Show your audience that emotional investment as often as you can.