So take time to establish these things at the beginning every story. Be very careful in those opening scenes: your audience is on guard, asking themselves: “Is this going to be that kind of story or my kind of story?” Let them know the answer right away, so that you can self-select an audience that wants the sort of mood that you’re prepared to deliver.
Jeopardy tends to come in one or more of these forms:
- Lethal: Do we worry that the hero will get killed or harmed? Do events have grave physical consequences?
- Social: Are we primarily worried about the hero’s search for love and/or respect?
- Psychological: Has the hero’s mental well-being been threatened?
- Spiritual: Is the hero worried about the state of his or her soul?
- Casablanca: Lethal and social. We see a man shot dead in the street for having the letters, then we see our hero get the same letters. We quickly discover, however, that he’s less worried about his own safety and more about an old humiliation he wants to rectify.
- Sunset Boulevard: Lethal and social. We see our hero dead right away, so we know the stakes, but he’s more focused on avoiding humiliation.
- In a Lonely Place: Social and psychological. We begin with Dix scaring himself with his own violence in a road rage incident, then we see him accept the judgment of some kids that he’s nobody.
- Alien: Lethal. It takes a while for the violence to begin, but everything seems very grave right away.
- The Shining: Lethal and psychological. We hear about the previous caretaker chopping up his family and the dangers of isolation.
- Blue Velvet: Lethal and psychological. The severed ear intimates physical danger, but we sense right away that the greater threat is the disturbed look at Jeffrey gives to that ear.
- Silence of the Lambs: Interestingly, the stakes aren’t really lethal (we never worry much about her safety) and certainly not social (she’s not trying to make any friends), but strictly psychological (“Don’t let him into your head.”)
- Groundhog Day: Social and spiritual. (We will soon learn, in fact, that there are no physical consequences in this world, even for death.)
- Donnie Brasco: Despite the setting, the stakes are social and spiritual far more than lethal (Donnie’s wife isn’t worried that he’ll be killed, she’s worried that he’s changing too much)
- The Bourne Identity: Lethal, psychological and social. He worries that he’ll be killed, that his mind is broken, and, eventually, that he’s a bad man.
- Sideways: Strictly social for both men. Miles is depressed, but he never feels psychologically unstable, just endlessly humiliated. For Jack, physical danger will rear its head toward the end, but even when he gets beaten up, he’s primarily worried about what his fiancé will make of it.
- How to Train Your Dragon: Equally lethal, social, and spiritual. If he fails at the training, he’ll be humiliated and he may lose his life, but if he succeeds, he may lose his soul.
- Iron Man: Lethal, social, and spiritual, he’s worried about death, humiliation, and the state of his soul.
- An Education: Entirely social. She feels like a heel at the end, but never feels her soul is in jeopardy.
- Bridesmaids: Entirely social. Again, she gets really depressed, but only in the form of severe humiliation, she’s not really mentally disturbed.
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