Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“Have a Body Hit the Floor”

By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 16, 2013

A few weeks back, we were talking about this tidbit of wisdom from screenwriter Jack Epps: “You can’t do everything in one draft.”

Tony Soprano

"If Tony finds out, we're ALL toast!"

The corollary, we said, is to focus on only one aspect of your manuscript/screenplay/videogame at a time. One aspect per draft.

Today let’s talk about stakes.

(Ideally you and I should have thought deeply about this before we even started Draft #1. But let’s be real. Most of us plunge in and swim like hell for the far shore. So maybe we need to regroup for Drafts #2 through #15 and revisit certain essentials.)

What are “stakes” anyway?

The stakes for a character are what he or she stands to gain with success—or lose with failure.

My own rule of thumb: the stakes for the hero must always be life and death. If possible, they should be life and death for every character in the story.

When I first came out to Tinseltown, I was struggling with a spec script. I just couldn’t make it interesting. I told my friend, the late director Ernie Pintoff. He said, “Have a body hit the floor.”

What he meant was raise the stakes.

Stories are lame when the stakes are low.

I listened to Ernie. I threw a dead body into the story. It worked so well, I chucked in another one. Pretty soon the corpses were dropping all over the place. Every time someone died, the story got better.

One reason was that I had to build in backstories to explain what was behind this wholesale bloodletting. To my delight, these prequels wound the story tighter and sexier. No wonder the motorcycle cop in the French Quarter got his head blown off; he was grabbing something on the side with the trumpet player’s girlfriend.

I’ve been re-watching The Sopranos on HBO Signature. One of the things that David Chase and his writers do extremely well is to set the stakes high, not just for Tony, but for every character in the series. Carmela, Dr. Melfi, Christopher, Uncle Junior, Livia, Big Pussy, even the kids, Meadow and A.J. At any moment each one is poised on a knife edge. Carmela making out with the wallpaper guy, Pussy wearing a wire: OMG, if Tony finds out, it’s everybody’s ass!

Stakes are related to jeopardy. The Sopranos does a masterful job at this too. Every character is in jeopardy all the time.

This is no accident. It would not surprise me to learn that in the writers’ room while these shows were being put together was a big board headed JEOPARDY, with each character’s name in a column underneath. A script would not go before the cameras until every slot had been filled in.

It’s critical, as well, that the reader/audience understands what the stakes are for each character at all times. Don’t be vague. If the stakes are hazy, write a scene that makes them clear. This is what I mean be devoting one draft to this topic only. Go over the entire story, asking yourself, “Are the stakes high and clear for all characters from start to finish?”

When the stakes are high and clear, the reader/audience’s emotions become involved.

Sports journalists know this. Broadcasting a tennis match or a Little League baseball game, the announcers will always focus on “the story,” meaning some drama within the event that possesses high stakes. Sportswriters will stress in their coverage something like: “If Team X loses, the coach will get fired, the goalie will kill himself, the entire nation of Ghana will go up in flames.”

Bud Greenspan covering the Olympics always went for “personal stories.” These weren’t really about “background” or “color.” They were about stakes.  What would it mean to Miroslav Gregorovich, whose mother was killed by sniper fire in Sarajevo and who grew up eating rats that he hunted on the street, lost his right leg from the knee down to frostbite, and was raised by his grandmother who fed him turnips because they could get nothing else … what would it mean to him (and to his grandmother) if he could medal in the 115-pound wrestling class?” Now when you watch this totally obscure event, you’re on the edge of your seat because the stakes are so high.

A final note about “life and death.” The stakes don’t have to be literally mortal. But they must feel like life and death to the specific character. If Faye Dunaway loses her daughter to John Huston’s incestuous depredations in Chinatown, she will not literally die. Her fate will be even worse.

Destruction of the soul. Those are the ultimate stakes.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

11 Responses to ““Have a Body Hit the Floor””

  1. Basilis
    January 16, 2013 at 4:02 am

    Destruction of the Soul…

    It’s by far the “bestest” (and also the first time I’ve seen it written down!).

  2. January 16, 2013 at 7:29 am

    I’m glad you clarified what you meant by “life and death,” since “destruction of the soul” can be a seemingly minor thing. For an 8 year old, getting to school and finding out he has peanut butter instead of tuna fish in his sandwich can be a “destruction of the soul” moment. How to make it through the rest of the day?

    Also, it is possible to cheapen the conflict if too many bodies hit the floor, unexplained. The story might become a Monty Python-esque parody.

    Finally, one problem with journalism today is the story: the journalists too often write the facts to fit story, a rather Procrustean bed for narrative. The example you cite, though, is the opposite.

    Here’s to lots of bodies dropping – appropriately, and metaphorically.

  3. January 16, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Perfect timing. And when the wisdom is this rich, any time is perfect.

  4. January 16, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Awesome advice– going to put your flanking catch-phrases “Have a body hit the floor.” and “Destruction of the soul.” on a post-it. :D

  5. January 16, 2013 at 9:16 am

    Just watched David Mamet’s “Red Belt” again last night. This film is also an amazing example of utilizing both stakes, loss of life and destruction of the soul, with all his characters, and as the underlying theme. Thanks for the inspiring follow up!

  6. January 16, 2013 at 9:20 am

    A link to your article was posted on Writer Unboxed Facebook page by Vaughn Roycroft.

    Decided not to be a passerby and take a minute to say thanks for sharing your experience.

    I wrote a young adult novel that has a “complete story,” but, after Twilight and Hunger Games came out, I knew it was too tame. I will be processing this information and see if I can figure out how to punch it up…thanks! (I moved to another genre and did punch up my style in a series of essays…so have made some progress in honing my style anyway :–)

    –Ceejae Devine

  7. January 16, 2013 at 1:30 pm

    Bravo, Steven! Your post really hit a nerve with me today and not just for its overview insights. Your note about one of your characters’ head blown off in New Orleans did the trick. Why? I opened a new thriller–coming out in March–with my character running for his life down crowded Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras Day. He’s chased by the Voodoos. They want his life as well as what he has taken from them. My hero, Cherokee, soon discovers he must protect not only his own life but that of the USA. Is his very soul at risk as well? Of course. Though the author of six books, I have read only one book on writing in my life: WRITING THE BLOCK BUSTER NOVEL by Al Zuckerman. It has much in common with your post today. No, I am not meaning to plug his book. He, as you know, founded Writer’s House in NY many years ago. He and I parted company long ago but he did one hell of job in selling my first book at a heated auction. That was my lucky break because my “stakes” where high, both my soul and life–it seemed–on the line.

  8. TLRay
    January 17, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Snap Steven! I just started re-watching the Soprano’s as well, for expressly that purpose. Excellent writing. I write novels and although massive amounts of reading, helps, I learn so much about story structure and character development from watching a good film or series.

    As always, excellent stuff, thank you for being here for us all!

  9. Tim Rodenberger
    January 21, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    Oh man! You’re not only teaching great writing techniques, you’ve prescribed a solution to life’s greatest problem: the Amateur. As we write our life story we should have bodies dropping all over the place. Why don’t more people Turn Pro? Because they don’t realize what they have to lose. It’s the very same Soul Destruction you speak of. Case of the Blues, old friend? You’ve lost something, find something else to lose. Why isn’t the lady I’m so fond of getting back to me? Obviously, she doesn’t have much to lose. Give her a body and watch it hit the floor! I have a saying posted in my office: “Today is my Deadline.” Much like D.D. Falvo’s response, I will replace that with “Find Something to Lose.” You’ve written a powerful article. Thank you

  10. Tim Rodenberger
    January 21, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    Draft #2: “Raise the Stakes”

  11. January 22, 2013 at 7:14 pm

    I have been reading your blogs for a while and I finally had to comment. This is such excellent advice! I wish that you had been one of my writing teachers in college. But you did inspire me to become a historical fiction writer. Reading Gates of Fire (fifteen years ago) made me want to learn more about the ancient world. In that story men face the ultimate stakes and refuse to lose their souls through cowardice.