Fiction: Physical vs Emotional Stakes
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Writing Emotional vs Physical Stakes


Physical stakes define our story structure.  They lay out what happens and why. 


Emotional stakes define the reader’s investment and attachment to the story.  They make the reader care about what happens.  This is more important, as the most convoluted plot falls flat if the reader is not interested in the outcome.


Let’s use The Shallows as an example.

Physical stakes:
WIN: Girl gets out alive and in one piece.
LOSE: Girl gets eaten by shark and/or gets injured.


This is the main arc of the plot.  The trouble begins when her life is threatened.  The trouble ends when she gets out alive.


However, the movie does not START with the shark.  It starts twenty minutes earlier with the girl in a car—developing her backstory.


If the shark story is what the movie is about, why do we start out with non-shark stuff?  Wouldn’t it be better to get right to the action?  The first twenty minutes is just the girl talking, so it’s boring, right?


Wrong.  When you start with the monster, you have a horror movie.  In a horror movie, you don’t care whether the character lives or dies, because you don’t know them.  For this reason, horror movies usually don’t touch us emotionally or make a statement.  They are entertainment, but, for the most part, they are not art.


Compare to The Shallows, whose physical plot sounds exactly like a horror movie.  Girl dodges shark for two hours while bad things happen to her.  Yet this movie is far more than your average monster film.  It touches us emotionally. It makes an inspiring statement. How?


Because of its emotional stakes.

WIN: Girl finds herself, finds a reason to fight, a reason to live.
LOSE: Girl gives up on life.  Decides she can’t save anyone, not even herself.


Just reading the emotional stakes, without the text of the movie, we feel it is saying something important, deep.  The emotional stakes are the real purpose of the movie: that’s why it starts with the character searching for herself instead of starting with her being chased by the shark.  That’s why it ends, not with the moment she finds safety on shore, but two years later with her having found her purpose in life. 


This is why most stories do not begin right when the trouble begins, but a bit beforehand.  The writer instinctively knows that a barfight is a hundred times more interesting when you know and care about the people involved.  


So, when plotting, use physical stakes to define the events that affect your character and the world.  Use emotional stakes to make the audience connect to those events and characters.    

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