“The stakes are not ours. They are the characters.”*
Stakes are both easy and hard. It’s a category that’s easy to fill in with something, hard to fill in well.
Stakes are consequences. They are what will happen if the hero fails to meet his goal. If our heroes are blue collar heroes who must blow up a giant asteroid (ARMAGEDDON), the stakes are “or else the world will be destroyed. If our hero is a cynical attorney who must win a meaningful case (THE VERDICT) the stakes could be read as “or else lose his soul.”
STAKES ARE NOT ABOUT SCALE.
Note that the stakes of ARMAGEDDON are “clearer” and “bigger” than those of THE VERDICT, while THE VERDICT is held to be a better movie. The lesson here: you don’t make the stakes better by making them “bigger,” make them better by connecting them to the audience.
Think about it: if all you needed for stakes was scale, every movie about “saving the world” would be gripping, fun to watch, and a success. Bitter experience tells us this is not the case. If the stakes of a movie are “or else Los Angeles blows up,” you don’t make that more interesting by also threatening Sacramento.
STAKES ARE IMPROVED BY CONNECTING THEM TO CHARACTER
In writing, we’re often reminded to “raise the stakes.” I prefer to think of it as “deepening the stakes.” Stakes evolve by deepening the sense of consequences for the character. In ARMAGEDDON, the world may be at stake, but the heroes are primarily concerned with the fact that their loved ones live their. In THE VERDICT, the soul of a lawyer is at stake, but the story focuses on that one minute detail and makes his fate seem as important as an entire world.
AVOID MAKING THE LOVE INTEREST THE STAKES
It’s difficult to get an audience to buy that this particular love interest is the answer to all a character’s problems. If you’re writing a romantic movie, it’s better to attach a more external set of stakes to an external goal, so that the love interest causes narrative complexity vis a vis that, and everything is given more weight.
*Credit Reddit: /u/the000devon