• Thoughts on Stakes

I just got done watching Moneyball – completely blew me away.  Loved it.  And it got me thinking about sports movies and how I’m so thoroughly engrossed in them – and I don’t even like sports!  Yet, I love action movies, romantic comedies, science fiction – all genres with much bigger stakes than just playing a game.  So what is it about this magical genre?  A couple things occurred to me:

1. Everyone can relate to a dreamer.

And sports are all about dreams.  A little kid playing baseball with his dad.  All he wants to be when he grows up is a baseball player.  He works hard, finally gets his big shot.  You can replace “baseball” with acting or ballet or politics, but the dreams remain the same.  Everyone can relate to it.

For a lot of the world, they hang up on those dreams somewhere in or around college.  So when we see someone on screen, living out those dreams, we see ourselves living out those dreams.  It’s a “what if” scenario.  What if I had stuck with piano lessons?  What if I had written that novel?  What if I had traveled the world?  Everyone asks these questions, and it’s those questions we want to see lived out on the screen.

A hero who follows his dreams in the face of adversity is always a good story.  No genre does this as well as Sports, but it can be applied to every genre.

2. There’s always a clear goal (or basket or touchdown.)

In the Sports genre, there’s always a final hurdle.  And it’s clearly defined:  Win the state championship.  Go toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed.  Defeat Johnny and his Cobra Kai pals.  We usually know from very early on what that goal is and we’re along for the ride.

Almost always, our heroes are the underdogs.  They are the LEAST likely to win.  But they put that goal in site and don’t stop until they’ve arrived.  And that’s key to a great character.  We love someone who dreams big, and we love someone who doesn’t give up.

3. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.

In writing classes, they always say raise the stakes.  Yet, the larger the stakes, I believe the less you relate to them.  The world is going to blow up?  First of all, no it isn’t.  Secondly, I have no frame of reference for that.  What does that mean to me?  I can’t relate to it.  I’ve never been put in that position.

So, then they say make it personal.  Your daughter is kidnapped?  Okay, I can relate to what it must be like to lose a loved one.  What if she dies?  Well, in this scenario, there is only one way for our hero to win: rescue his daughter.  And that’s boring, because we expect it.  Some gutsy filmmaker might have the daughter die in the end, but then our hero is destroyed.  He’s a failure.  There’s no satisfying arc in that, (at least not in the same way Sports movies are satisfying.)

How do Sports movies do it differently?  By creating a scenario where win or lose, the hero succeeds.

Two of my favorite Sports movies are Rocky & the Karate Kid – both referenced earlier.  Both are similar stories.  Guys who don’t stand a chance, up against insane odds.  They stick to their guns, no matter what obstacles come their way (and they face a lot of obstacles), and finally arrive at their goal.  Simply arriving at that goal is an accomplishment.  Enough to end the movie right there.  But there’s that last hurdle.  That final goal that’s been driving the film.  And as a result of everything that came before it, you pull for them to win even more.  You are invested.

At this point Rocky & Karate Kid have two different endings: One wins the big fight and one doesn’t.  (I won’t specify which one is which in case for some weird reason you haven’t seen them.)  But both are equally satisfying.  And I believe that they are so satisfying because they are unpredictable.

If your goal for your action hero is to save your daughter or she dies – they are probably going to save their daughter.  If your goal for your action hero is to keep the world from blowing up – they are probably going to keep the world from blowing up.  These are predictable endings.

Is it possible to take an action film or a romantic comedy or a sci-fi film and create an ending that is both unpredictable and satisfying no matter how it ends?  Sports movies do it all the time.

I had no idea how Moneyball was going to end.  Leading up to and even after the final hurdle.  Yet, had the movie gone in either direction, it would’ve been a satisfying ending.  I think that’s remarkable writing.

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