Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Reader mail: Raising the stakes, Contests, and Queries

Greg asks a sort of general question:

I got gigged on this for two separate scripts... My protagonists each had an identifiable challenging goal... there were obstacles & complications, etc., but the stakes were never raised.

Any thoughts on how to raise the stakes?

That's a hard answer to give without knowing the specifics of the plot. Killing a character is always a popular way to raise the stakes. If the death happens in a way that leaves the hero with some guilt over the fact they might have prevented it, it leaves a scar on the character and probably makes them double their efforts. If the killed character is a mentor also could signify the moment when the protagonist has to stand on his own, without the guidence of those wiser then him. Obi-Wan Kenobi dying on the Death Star is a good example of this in Star Wars.

Maybe an even better example would be Wash dying in Serenity. He's killed off by the Reavers almost as soon as the ship gets on the ground. It's so swift and brutal that the audience is thrown for a loop. The real value of this death is that it established that the filmmakers were willing to "go there" and the action sequences that immediately follow have a lot more tension because of the sense that any character could bite it. If Wash wasn't safe, no one is safe.

There are plenty of other examples of death being used like this. Randy being killed off in Scream 2 is a major gut-punch because he is the stand-in for the audience and was a much loved character. It was a great way to show that the survivors of the first film weren't necessarily vulnerable.

Another good one is the moment in Taken when Liam Neeson finds his daughter's friend dead. The movie was pretty dark up to that point, but this moment leaves the audience wondering if it's merely a preview of the daughter's fate. The Dark Knight raises the stakes by not only killing off Rachel, but by permanently scaring (emotionally and physically) Harvey Dent.

You don't have to kill off a character. Sometimes all it takes is for a stable relationship to be ripped apart by conflict, or destroy a character's home or job. A good way to approach rasing the stakes is to ask yourself, "How can I make my lead character appear most vulnerable? What will it take to burst any bubble of security around him?"

Clint emailed this question:

What is the real-world take on screenwriting contests? Does anyone pay attention to them? And, if so, which contests are considered the best?

I don't think they help much. The Nicholl Fellowship is always held up as one of the most regarded, but speaking as someone who's read many of those scripts I find few of them are commercial. The bottom line is that this is a business. You might win a contest with your heartfelt drama about an 8 year-old boy who deals with the pain of an abusive home by teaching an ostrich how to fly, but odds are you'll have a hard time selling it.

But then, at least those scripts get read. Maybe I've just seen the dull, self-indulgent, navel-gazing Finalist scripts, but what I have read from Nicholl is usually so counter to what the market is even remotely looking for that I feel like something must be "broken" in the judging process. If I had to tell you to submit to one, I'd say the Nicholls but I worry that some snobby readers are working to quash anything that reeks of "commerical" to them.

Beyond that, I'd say the only contests of any value are ones where your work is being read by agents, managers and producers. Then you've at least got another way to access those people beyond queries and connections. Don't waste your time entering smaller contests in the hopes that you'll be able to put "I was a Finalist in the Hazard County Yee-Haw Script Round-Up" and expect that any agent or producer is going to say, "Egad! I must request this immediatley!"

Just my take.

Castor Troy wrote me with this question:

I want to better target where I send my query letter. Do you have any websites or books to recommend that list script agents by genre? Or, do you recommend doing some digging into the latest sales and find out what producers and agents are attached to projects in my genre?

I say the latter more than the former. Books go out of date pretty quickly, and if there are websites that collect information that specific, I'm unaware of them. When it comes to targeting your query letter, there's no substitute for doing your own research. Subscribing to tracking boards and industry databases like IMDBPro are a good start. The people over on Done Deal Pro's boards also seem to know their stuff when it comes to this kind of thing.


  1. I would suggest perusing Writer's Conference websites where agents/managers/production people are hosting small pitch events. Even if you don't have the money to attend, you can get current info for what they might be looking for and what they're NOT looking for and then find some way to contact them lataer. One such is the Willamette Writers Conference. They list mostly literary agents but some are tv/film related. It's a tool, and I don't suggest crashing the conference or anything like that, but if you're emailing a query, it's a way to know who to target with your particular material. I'm sure there are other conferences with panels & the like. Just a thought.

  2. As for stakes, I can tell you what worked for me in my Acting School days, and generally now works for me in my Mostly-Writing-Not-Much-Acting days. For each important character, I simply ask:

    1) What does this character want?
    2) What happens if this character doesn't get what s/he wants?

    What will, in actuality or in the characters' imaginations, happen if they do not reach their goals? The answer to Question 2 should become more devastating as the story progress, with the protagonist and/or audience picking up hints of this danger as time goes on (ie, first the President gets kidnapped, then the President's daughter, then the Protagonist's daughter). The answer should also, preferably, be really really specific. So it's not just "something bad will happen" but "the terrorists with kill the President in front of his daughter, and they will make the Protagonist's daughter pull the trigger, then they will kill her" (or even just "the character will be ostracized by all of his friends and subsequently die alone, unimportant and unremembered, forever," if that's the script you're working on).

    Maybe that's too general, but it helps me. If I feel like things are getting too tame in a script, I just take a look at my protagonist and say, "What's going to happen to Character A if he doesn't get what he's after? And how does he (or the audience, if he's supposed to be oblivious) KNOW that?"

  3. Oh, and especially if you're writing something lacking in death and explosions, like romantic comedies or understated family dramas, it's OK if the character's idea of stakes isn't exactly realistic. Molly Ringwald's character in "Pretty in Pink" isn't really going to live the rest of her life without love if her rich boyfriend doesn't go to the prom with her, but it sure seems to feel that way to her; so then when you combine her fears with the real, ever-escalating threat that he won't take her to prom after all and she really will have to stay an outcast forever, the outcome becomes very important to the audience.

  4. In terms of looking for ways to find genre-specific managers, the website is a great database of specs, owas, and projects in development - and agents and managers are listed with the specs they've been taking out, so you can track how many of their specs have sold. So you not only get an idea of who's taking what projects out and to whom, but also who's buying what and whose projects are successful.

  5. Damn it, man, I haven't finished watching Firefly and Serenity yet.