Stakes can make or break a story

Time for another blog. I have not been walking lately, so I’m trying dictating in the car on my way to lunch with friends. Well I did the one walk at run club last week but Kevin came along. It’s weird to dictate a blog while walking with a person. Apparently, my mind prefers talking to itself.

On to the actual subject matter of this blog: two movies that showed a lot about storytelling. They were both the same genre—true story sports movies—yet they had extremely different effects.

Why These Two Movies

Certain tropes are indicative of true story sports movies. 

  • Underdogs looking to triumph
  • Coach who’s on his last chance
  • Star player who is super talented but has a huge challenge to overcome
  • Lack of respect/support of community
  • Moment where it looks like they’re going to fail
  • Happy ending where the team/athlete triumphs and the coach redeems himself
  • Final credits with extra information about the real people

My mood always affects my movie-watching experience. And on this day, I required predictability, someone to root for, and a happy ending to cry about. So a sports-themed, true story seemed to fit the bill.

The Movies

The first one was Next Goal Wins, a Taika Waititi film. I can never get his name right because I always want to add a “k” to his last name. One way or another, he’s freaking awesome, and I adore him. He’s funny, smart, and clever. I really, really, really like his work even if I didn’t expect to like it. Jojo Rabbit is the perfect example. With zero interest in that movie, my son made me watch it and it won me over, so charming and bittersweet. So I’m a fan. 

The other movie we considered was a Kevin Costner one, McFarland, USA. I’m not a huge fan of Kevin Costner. And I have no good reason for this feeling of mine. I’ve not read anything about him that tainted my opinion. His movies have always been fine. So I have no logical reason. But we’re not talking about logic here. Movie enjoyment is about as subjective as anything can be.

Hence, Taika won. Kevin (my Kevin, not Costner) and I sat down and watched Next Goal Wins.

Watching Experience

I probably should say there are spoilers in this if you haven’t seen these movies. I’ll try to be as little spoilery as possible.

Verdict on Next Goal Wins? It was cute. It was just cute. It didn’t satisfy that inner desire I had. In the moment, I couldn’t even tell you why. It met all of those tropes I described above. Yet, I was left unfulfilled.

There was only one thing to do: watch McFarland, USA. To my surprise, even though I’m not a Kevin Costner fan, that movie was the perfect sports film. It completely hit the right spot. I cried at the right time. I feared they wouldn’t overcome their life circumstances. I cared about the players.

Well, that was unexpected. 

What Happened?

But then it got me thinking. These movies are not that unique from each other. Yet, my viewing experience diverged drastically. Why?

After sleeping on it—my brain wouldn’t let this conundrum go—I woke up with the answer: stakes. The stakes for the characters in each movie made all the difference.

Next Goal Wins takes place in American Samoa, with adults on a football team—American soccer. And they were the worst team ever. They had the most points against them ever in any, like, FIFA competition. I think it’s FIFA. Not a football expert here. (Okay, I looked it up when I got home and it is FIFA. The score was 31-0 against Australia.) And so, they were trying to redeem themselves. Of course, they get a coach who is, you know, an alcoholic and going through a loss. His life was in shambles. Hence, he was also trying to find his way in this world, because he didn’t know where he belonged anymore. The acting was great. There were definitely some cute moments in it.

It sounds great, right? I’m looking for these tropes. I’m looking for this feeling. This is what I’m looking for. But the big goal was, they were just trying to score a goal. There were no stakes. If they didn’t get a goal, you know what would have happened to them?

Nothing. They weren’t going to lose their homes. No one was going to ban them from playing football. It’s not like they had great funding, and they were going to lose that. There was nothing that they were going to lose. The only thing they gain is pride for the island. Like yay, we made a goal.

And so it just did not hit. The stakes were not high enough.

So let’s look at McFarlandUSA. The student athletes in this movie were below the poverty line. School was a rite of passage, not a means to an end. Their fathers were pickers.

These kids were destined to work land they didn’t own their whole lives. This was their future. None of these kids were going to college.

This story takes place in California with immigrants working their behinds off just to feed their families. Enter Kevin Costner, a coach, ready to redeem himself. He was supposed to be the assistant football coach but didn’t get along with the head coach. (American football) When that title is taken from him, the coach has no idea where he stands. He’s in this tiny little town with his wife and his daughters. They’re going through a little culture shock, right, with all the Spanish speakers and the altered family dynamics. The neighborhood feels more crime-ridden. At least compared to the little town in Idaho they were from. So they don’t quite know where they fit in.

Then he watches the kids run. They run everywhere: from school to go back to the fields to work and in the morning they run from the fields to school. So they’re running all over the place just to get where they need to go without it taking 17 hours by walking.

And the kids are fast.

Kevin Costner’s like, “Dude, we should form a track team.” And the principal’s like, “Do you know anything about track?” He’s like, “Nope.” But he figures it out, and they do it.

Predictably, they follow through and, you know, make this wonderful track team. In the end, the kids learn that they can do more than work on the farm if they put the effort and energy into something else. And they do. The after action for this movie where we learn what happened to the characters was so satisfying.

The whole point is there were huge stakes in this movie. The students had to sacrifice what little free time they had to train. Their families had to agree to let them when the extra hands were needed in the fields. All of this sacrifice to give the track and field competitors a chance at something more than their parents have. I do not come from immigrant parents. But that’s why immigrants leave their home countries, right? To give their children a chance at a brighter future.

As for the coach, he brought his family to McFarland, into this place he was unfamiliar with, His stakes were high too, because he didn’t know what was going to happen if he failed again. How was going to support his family?

The stakes were huge in this movie.


And it hit. I cried multiple times throughout McFarland, USA. It gave me every bit of the feels I longed for when I chose this genre.

Big Picture Lesson

Why am I even writing about this? Who cares that I liked one movie over another? Well I am a storyteller. It’s vital that I constantly analyze story elements, especially while I’m drafting a new book. The experience of similar movies with varied emotional impact made me consider the stakes in my current project.

You can have every other element correct. If the stakes aren’t high enough, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t hit in a way that makes you actually care about the characters, actually think about them later.

So I guess that’s my lesson for today. Stakes are extremely important. As I continue to add words to The Specter book four in the Emergence series, I’ll concentrate on bolstering the stakes. I’m almost to the halfway point in the draft. It’s not too late in this stage of creating to change things around or add another element.

Shameless Plug

If you want to judge the stakes in the first three books, check out The Collector and begin your journey.

Thanks for sticking around. What movies have you seen that didn’t quite hit the way you thought they would? Was it a stakes issue or something else?

You may also like...