The first piece of writing advice I ever got was when I was about 10. Andy Griffiths came to my school to talk to us about his books – the Australian children’s author, not Andy Griffith the actor. He said, when writing his gross-out humour, he always thinks “What’s the worst thing that can happen now?” I was more interested in adult books at 10, but I clearly remember him saying that. Ten or eleven years later, Melbourne acting teacher, Peter Kalos, told me to “put your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.” Then Billy Stoneking asked – whenever a new idea for a book or film was mentioned in front of him – “Where’s the drama?” They were talking about raising the stakes – and it was all fantastic, life-affirming, career-changing advice.
Raising the stakes does not mean you drag your protagonists through one emotionally, physically, or psychologically perilous torture to the next. It means you establish the threat early – the “threat” being what happens if your protagonist fails. And if you can’t say it in one sentence, change it. The worst threats are simple and basic. There’s a reason fear is called a base instinct and it’s that fear you want to tap into. Even in a romantic comedy, the fear is rejection and lifelong loneliness. And you don’t tap into something primal in your reader or viewer by simply telling them there is a great threat out there – you show them and give them hints that it’s going to get worse.
Let’s talk about Jaws – for the sake of ease, we’ll make it the film. In the first few minutes, we see a young woman get attacked and killed by something in the water. The images fade to a shot of water outside a bedroom window and pulls back to Ellen Brody in bed. It’s like the water is watching her sleep. Martin Brody gets up, goes to the kitchen where his two kids are messing around. The next scene shows when a kid gets taken by the shark.
See what’s being done here? Spielberg is showing us – without telling us but hinting to us – what will happen if Martin Brody can’t stop this thing in the water. His wife, his kids.
In The Shining’s first few pages, we know the last caretaker cut up his family with an axe. It’s less subtle but no less simple and immediate. Jack Torrance has a kid and a wife with him.
Sometimes the threat isn’t so simple as a haunted hotel or giant shark. In Mighty Mary, the threat is the world itself – the inhabitants are agents of mercy or cruelty – so I showed the baby elephant first, then a dead elephant killed with a gun. I didn’t have that in the first draft and I had to ask myself, hang on – why are we reading after page five? All we’ve seen is a baby elephant born and start to grow up…
When thinking about a story, you’re thinking about a stake. You’ve got to be a little bit of a bully and a psychopath. I suppose, in that, you’ve got to drop hints and taunt your protagonists while the threat mounts and their attempts to surmount it fail.