The Stakes In Every Story Are Always Life And Death by Alan Watt [Founder of L.A. Writers’ Lab]

Film Courage: Okay then I’ll give you my version of a marginalized voice in a story versus a middle class one [first world problems]. 

A marginalized one is a little girl wants to go to a birthday party but the friends in the neighborhood…the mothers know that her mom cleans people’s houses for a living. The [pack] of moms respond with Oh…honey…she’s nice but we don’t really know her. I’m so sorry.

The middle class voice is someone is applying for colleges but it turns out most of her friends are getting accepted into college and she’s not sure if her GPA is good enough to get into the school her friends will all attend. And [the protagonist] is like Oh my gosh, I’m going to lose all of my high school friends. What’s going to happen to my social standing in this group?

Alan Watt, Author/Screenwriter and [Founder of L.A. Writers’ Lab]: Okay so these are like seeds of story right? 

So tell me what is your question?

Film Courage: My question is are the stakes higher for the author of the marginalized voice where that story implies non-inclusion into a group? Whereas the middle class story has a protagonist more worried about losing social footing or losing touch with friends? Are the stakes higher for one versus the other?

Al: I don’t think of stakes…gosh? I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t think the stakes are about the actual situation. The stakes are really about the ability of the writer to convey a sense of urgency or anxiety. In other words…we’re not really talking about dilemma, we’re talking about stakes.

The stakes should always be life and death in every story. They are always life and death. If Jan Brady doesn’t get a date with Tad Hamilton she will absolutely die! Stakes are always life and death.

If they are anything less than life and death, we don’t care at all. We don’t care at all. 

If you want to talk about dilemma, there are two ingredients to dilemma. So dilemma is a problem that can’t be solved without creating another problem. And when you connect to your dilemma you’re connecting to the aliveness in your story. 

There are two ingredients to a dilemma: A powerful want, a powerful desire and a false belief. A misperception of myself or the world.

And so when Sally loves me, then I’ll be complete. Now that’s the beginning of the story. I’ve got to get Sally to love me in order to be complete. Do you see a powerful desire…if Sally doesn’t love me my life will be unimaginable. And the false belief is that Sally will complete me.

So we’ve got a powerful desire. Remember that story structure is desire, surrender, transformation. We’ve got to surrender, I mean I’m going to have to let go of the meaning I make out of my goal as long as I believe that Sally’s love complete’s me, I will forever be in bondage to Sally or my idea of Sally’s love because…and the audience or the reader is going to be disappointed if all that happens at the end of the story is that Sally loves me. 

If Jimmy Stewart left Bedford Falls at the end of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE we would be disappointed because that’s not…(Watch the video interview on Youtube here).


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