Ah, stakes. The gradual elevation of risk and potential loss/reward that both reality and traditionally scripted series demand at three levels: Over each episode, each season and, finally, the series as a whole.
Just about every book or blog on screenwriting that you’ve ever read reminds you that every scene counts. Scenes that don’t move story forward, they caution, are wasted effort and a snooze for the audience. But when it comes to making every scene count as you ramp up stakes, does each scene need to be more dramatically intense than the last?
No. You can’t climb Everest without stopping along the way to rest, and story, at least to me in most cases, works in much the same way.
The exaggerated example — the lab frog in this entry — is the typical action film. From first shot fired to final climactic showdown, you’ll find sprinkled throughout the action bits of humor, poignant moments, and plot-forwarding action that may not in and of itself be action-packed. The hero calls his wife to tell her he might not make it home. The villain menaces one of his own henchmen who has failed to bring back the hero. The comic relief character complains to himself as he navigates a cobwebbed maze to get back to the main group from whom he’s been separated. These scenes run parallel to the story, but don’t necessarily offer up new information essential to advancing it.
So why are they there?
These are the audience’s camps on the way up the mountain where the adrenaline levels settle where you, as a viewer, are momentarily relieved from your white-knuckle ride in precious moments that allow you to recalibrate before you’re bombarded with more big action. If it weren’t for these brief periods of rest, you’d probably burn out before the movie was over.
The same thing, I think, applies to television. You can’t steadily turn the anxiety dial to the right without pausing once in a while to let people laugh or learn new information.
In reality, you’ll often get a lot of great action back from the field, but many days where it seems little is going on. “A funny thing happens while Jodie is shopping for silverware.”
Big deal. Scrap it, right?
Not so fast. Don’t write this material off, as you can use it to cover time lapses in your main story (e.g., Becky leaves her house to confront Beth / Jodie shops for silverware / Becky arrives at Beth’s house to confront her) as well as give the audience a moment to build anticipation for the big scene to come.
You may also come across scenework where two people discuss others who aren’t present in a relaxed setting like a patio or wine bar. This kind of content makes the previously parenthetical example even sweeter: Becky leaves her house to confront Beth / Jodie and Jill discuss Becky and Beth’s feud that they wouldn’t want to be there for the end of / Becky arrives at Beth’s house to confront her.
Remember as you ramp up to the big payoff — give your audience a break once in a while to help make big action and new twists pop.