A world without love is also a world without stakes. —Lauren Oliver
I recently went to see Eternals. This latest Marvel installment stars Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani (among others) and was directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao.
With top-tier talent and a budget of 200 million dollars, Eternals managed to be something truly amazing: boring.
I won’t print any spoilers here, but the problem was with the stakes.
David Mamet claims that all scenes should be able to answer three questions:
1. Who wants what from whom?
2. What happens if they don’t get it?
3. Why now?
In other words, we need to know what’s at stake. In most stories, the main character wants something. Their failure to get it has both a situational and an emotional impact on them.
Their failure to get it should also have an emotional impact on the reader. We should want the character to succeed (or, in the case of a villain, fail). If a reader doesn’t care about the character, no amount of rage or tears will make them care.
Why Events Matter
If you are crafting a romance, the reader should want the two characters to be together. If you are crafting a rescue, the reader should cheer for the rescuer. If you are crafting an action movie featuring characters who are trying to save the world, it’s important for the world (or at least someone in it) to seem like it’s worth saving.
As my friend Helen says, “Plot is what happens. Character is why you care.”