3 Ways to Test Your Story’s Emotional Stakes

How To Make Sure Your Story Has Emotional Stakes

Part 14 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

You can do almost everything right in a story, and it will not matter. Acing your story structure, constructing a solid thematic premise, and punching your card on every important character-arc beat will not matter—if you don’t also nail the emotional stakes.

The craft of storytelling is largely logical. We study story theory to discover the patterns that emerge from story to story, and then apply these universal facets of structure to our own stories.

But as important as logic is to good writing, it can never bear the burden of good storytelling all by itself. Emotion is every bit as important (arguably more so) in getting readers to actually care about and invest in the logically compelling story world you’ve created.

That’s where emotional stakes come in. It’s the glue that holds together your plot, character, and theme. It’s what takes your story from solid but empty framework to the realm of something readers will enjoy, remember, and perhaps even be impacted by.

Fail in your emotional stakes, and your entire story—however great its structure or character arc—simply will not matter. Unfortunately, that’s the category in which we find the highly-anticipated entry of Doctor Strange into the Marvel cinematic universe.

In Which Dr. Strange Learns Many (Many, Many) Things, Fights Bad Guys Just Because, and Tries to Serve Tea

Welcome to the (long-overdue) fourteenth installment in our serial exploration of the good and the bad in the Marvel movies. I missed Doctor Strange in the theater last November, which meant, no doubt, I missed out on a little bit of the dazzle from its gorgeous special effects. At the end of its two hours, however, I wasn’t too bummed to have saved an extra $10 bucks on ticket fare.

But first the good things:

  • I found Doctor Strange a very solid story. It’s structure is nicely in place, and it offers a lovely and sound character arc, as supremely (see what I did there?) arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange gets hit in the head (err, hands) by life and is forced to rethink his assumptions about himself and the universe.

Doctor Strange Ancient One Tilda Swinton

  • The whole kaleidoscopic special-effect approach is lovely.

Doctor Strange Special Effects

  • The ladies, in my opinion, stole the show, with Tilda Swinton using her eerie charm to excellent effect and Rachel McAdams breathing much-needed warmth and life into her every scene.

Doctor Strange Ancient One Tilda Swinton

  • The antagonist Kaecilius—however abbreviated his screentime—at least got the opportunity to offer some legitimate-sounding reasons for his evil plan to give everyone “immortality.”

Kaecilius Mads Mikkelson Doctor Strange

  • Thor’s tea. 😀

Dr Strange Thor Tea

And now the not-so-good things:

  • So, so much information dumping. One of the challenges of any origins story is setting up the world and, in this instance, its magic system for viewers. The best stories make the training sessions a legitimately interesting part of the conflict. And, also, preferably leave viewers with a clear and sensible understanding of how the “rules” work in this world and why they matter. Here, not so much.

Mirror Dimension Doctor Strange

  • Gotta love Benedict Cumberbatch (even though it’s very “strange” hearing him with an American accent), but more than anything this latest iteration of a Marvel “jerk” made me appreciate Robert Downey, Jr.’s insane charm, which gave us a much more endearing rich/arrogant/talented hero than we get from Stephen Strange—who pretty much just is a jerk in the beginning.

Doctor Strange Walking

  • As is also often a pitfall of origins stories, the overarching conflict with the main antagonist Kaecilius feels tacked on. Stephen has no personal investment in fighting Kaecilius. At one point, he basically stops and says, “Why am I fighting this guy? I don’t even know who he is?” To which everybody indignantly responds, “Dude, because he’s EVIL!”

Kaecilius

  • Still, all of those are pretty minor complaints. So it took me a while to puzzle out why this movie just didn’t work for me. Why it never sucked me in. Why, to be honest, it kind of bored me. And then—light bulb! This story has no prominent relationship character and, as a result, no emotional stakes.

Pass or Fail: How’s Your Story Do on These 3 Important Tests for Emotional Stakes?

First things first: what are emotional stakes?

Simply put, emotional stakes get your readers to care about your story. Emotional stakes get readers emotionally involved. When you succeed in building strong emotional stakes, readers essentially merge with your story. You’ve pulled them in so deeply their critical, logical brain tones down a little. Maybe they even completely block out the physical world around them.

For writers, this is the ultimate goal—this is to us what those pesky Infinity Stones are to Thanos. When your story engages readers on an emotional level, you’ve got ’em. Cha-ching!

Fail, however, in the emotional-stakes department, and two things happen:

1. At best, readers will simply skim the story’s surface, never really engaging with it, and ultimately setting it aside and forgetting about it (as we talked about in this recent post on the do’s and don’ts of writing memorable fiction).

2. At worst, the lack of emotional engagement will send readers into logical overdrive—and that means, they’re going to be far too aware of your story at every step. They’re standing outside the story, failing to fully suspend disbelief and therefore viewing it critically (sometimes very, very critically).

Okay, so these emotional stakes don’t sound so hard. Just write a reasonably likable character, throw him into a hairy situation, and—poof!—readers will care about him, become so emotionally involved they forget to eat or drink for the next twelve hours, and then awake from their trance thinking that was the best book evah.

Easy, right?

Erm, I wish.

All of that is a good starting place, but as Doctor Strange shows us, getting all the foundational pieces of a story right isn’t enough to punch readers’ emotional buttons. Fortunately, just because we’re talking “emotion” doesn’t mean we can’t apply ourselves logically to figure out what pieces must be in play to hit just the right switches.

As a matter of fact, there are three particular tests you can run to determine if your story will succeed or fail in engaging readers emotionally.

Emotional Stakes Test #1: Does Your Story Feature Important Relationship Characters?

This is where emotional stakes start. We understand people through their interactions with other people. Characters show us who they really are—both contextually and subtextually—in their relationships with other characters. Even a story such as Cast Away, about a man marooned on island, becomes emotional through the already-established relationships he’s trying to get back to (and the relationships he projects on inanimate objects such as, say, a soccer ball).

The most interesting part of any story is always the interplay between two people—whether they’re talking to each other, looking at each other, getting physical in some way, or studiously avoiding any of the above.

You don’t, however, get emotional stakes simply by putting two characters in a room together. You also don’t get a relationship character simply by having two characters slap backs and call each other “buddy.”

A relationship character is a very specific entity within a storyform. This is a prominent relationship that:

1. Strategically impacts the protagonist’s personal journey by pushing him toward either the Truth or Lie.

—and/or—

2. Evolves in direct proportion (as both an effect and a visual representation) of the protagonist’s inner transformation.

The relationship character can be one (or more) of any prominent archetypal characters, including antagonist, mentor, sidekick, and love interest (see this post for a full list of archetypal characters who affect theme). What’s most important about this character(s) is that she is not just a fluffy add-on for the sake of some cute dialogue. Nope, she’s absolutely, definitively, 100% integral to the story’s thematic premise.

Doctor Strange and Relationship Characters: Fail

This is where Doctor Strange makes its first misstep with its emotional stakes. Despite a multitude of opportunities, it fails to produce even one solid relationship character.

Granted, the archetypes are largely present. We have:

  • The Mentor

The Ancient One impacts Stephen’s arc the most, probably has more screentime than any other minor character, and is, for my money, the most interesting character in the story. But, with the exception of her death scene, she fails to engage with Stephen on a deeper level. Mostly, she serves simply to spew important information.

tilda-swinton-doctor-strange

  • The Love Interest

Dr. Christine Palmer is a great character, and Rachel McAdams’s warm performance pops her off the screen in her every scene. Of all the minor characters, she brings the most in emotional stakes, as we understand Stephen’s ability to emotionally relate to her will both prove his inner transformation and determine the happiness of his future. Christine’s presence at least pays tribute to the need for a relationship character. Sadly, she’s present in the movie for a bare fraction of the running time and has little impact on the actual plot.

Doctor Strange and Christine

  • The Antagonist

Marvel, in general, is a great example of the fact that the best conflicts are those that result when the antagonist is a formative (even the formative) relationship character. The series has also shown us that when the antagonist is not a relationship character, he inevitably seems tacked on. Stephen and Kaecilius have no personal relationship whatsoever, which means the main conflict is actually ancillary to Stephen’s personal journey (see Test #3 below).

Kaecilius and the Zealots

  • The Sidekick

Finally, we have the sadly underused Mordo. In light of his role as an antagonist in future stories, his early friendship with Stephen was the perfect setup for an excellent and meaningful relationship. Regrettably, Mordo remains arguably the flattest character of the lot. His relationship with Stephen is barely that of a friend, if only because it is never developed. In the end, this makes his defection far less meaningful than it could have been.

Mordo

Emotional Stakes Test #2: Does Your Story Feature Pertinent Interpersonal Conflict?

Once you’ve set up your story’s primary relationship characters, you then get to actually use these relationships in a way that creates conflict and interest.

When you hear “relationship character,” you might think “nice, happy, healthy friendship.” But I say, Ohhhhh no you don’t. Once you’ve got a relationship character, the only way to get emotional stakes is to milk that relationship for all its worth.

The stakes arise when the relationship and its positive outcome are important (even crucial) to the protagonist’s personal development—and yet that outcome is in serious doubt. Whether friends or foes, both of the characters in this relationship must be complex personalities, struggling through Lies and Truths, causing problems for themselves and each other, and ultimately making the path to true love (or whatever) anything but smooth.

Remember: in so many ways, this relationship is the story.

Doctor Strange and Interpersonal Conflict: Fail

If I had to pick one single reason why Doctor Strange bored me, this is it. Its lack of prominent relationship characters (and an overemphasis on sharing its complicated magic system and backstory) snowballed into an utter lack of interpersonal conflict.

Stephen engages with a lot of conflict in trying to overcome his injuries form the car wreck and then still more as he runs through dimensions, trying first to avoid dying at Kaecilius’s hands and then trying to stop Kaecilus’s EVIL plans. But he engages is basically zero interpersonal conflict.

Doctor Strange running

Yes, all of the above-mentioned (potential) relationship characters take a turn hollering at him for something. But save for an early argument with Christine, none of these scenes do anything to advance the actual relationships themselves.

Thus: the relationships are never at risk (of either crumbling or growing).

Thus: no emotional stakes.

Thus: snore.

(Want an example of what good interpersonal conflict with a relationship character looks like? Look no farther than The AvengersCaptain America: Winter Soldier, and, especially, Captain America: Civil War.)

Emotional Stakes Test #3: Have You Tied Your Emotional Stakes to the Plot Stakes?

Okay, so here you are: you’ve got some great relationship characters causing some great interpersonal conflict, which is, in turn, creating juicy emotional stakes. But have you made sure those emotional stakes are integral to the overarching main conflict of the exterior plot?

In a truly great story, everything comes together seamlessly. Every piece is part of the larger whole. Plot, character, and theme all move in such a way that they affect each other in a symbiotic circle of cause and affect. Subplots all come together in the end, preferably to move the main plot, but at least as a symbolic representation of some aspect of the theme.

The easiest way to pull this off is to make sure the principle relationship character is the antagonist. This means, in essence, that the main conflict is your emotional stakes.

Not all stories will support this, which is fine, as long as the conflict with the main relationship character and its related emotional stakes either

1. Directly influence the events in the Climactic Moment.

—or—

2. Are the focus of the conflict resolution in the Climactic Moment.

Doctor Strange and Interwoven Conflict: Fail

Yes, Doctor Strange belly-flopped on this one too. As we’ve already touched on, the exterior conflict with Kaecilius and his world-ending plan were decidedly (even egregiously) distanced from Stephen’s personal journey.

To be fair, I’m not going to hold the film’s feet to the fire on this one, since more than one Marvel movie has been guilty of this. But the bad news here is that the complete lack of any juicy subplot conflict means Doctor Strange doesn’t do too much to distract us from this particular problem.

The result is a climactic battle that lacks any kind of emotional stakes. Yes, Stephen completes his Positive-Change Arc with a nice moment of self-sacrifice.

Dormammu Doctor Strange

But the conflict itself gives us no reason to care on a personal level whether he defeats Kaecilius or parts ways with Mordo. And since his ability to win the conflict was never in any doubt, this means the Climax (which should be the tensest and most exciting part of the story) was one of the most forgettable.

Simply put, if a story fails to engage, then it fails. Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be a criticism made of your story! Make sure your story passes these three important tests for acing its emotional stakes, and you’ll never have any problem getting readers to suspend disbelief.

Stay Tuned: Next month, we’ll find out what we can learn from Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Who is the main relationship character in your story and how have you used him or her to create emotional stakes? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Nailed it.

    I tried blogging about this one myself last month (http://bit.ly/StrangeOrStark) and I have to say, it’s good to see you dig deeper into the kind of problems we both saw. I’m afraid this film is what people used to think of when they thought of “superhero story”– lots of action, a mythos and set of characters that advance by the numbers but don’t resonate much and… did we mention the action? with *Inception* FX back on the screen?

    (“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”–thanks, Shakespeare.)

    I think so much of what was missing was that Strange was pulled out of his own world (where Stark always stays around old friends and enablers who play up how he’s changed and how he hasn’t), and yet he has so little reaction to where he’s headed. Only one moment about a doctor forced to kill, and all his real doubts about the woo-woo world he’s embracing are just blasted away by the Ancient One’s vision– after that he’s pretty much a brand new character, who still doesn’t make us care.

    Meanwhile: anyone who wants to see Doctor Strange done right, there’s a Marvel animated movie with his name that does it so much better with an hour less running time.

    Sigh.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, one of the things I love about Iron Man is Tony both traveling away from and returning to his Normal World. It’s a feat that’s actually very hard to pull off without making a story feel fragmented, but the structure is so tight and streamlined in that film that it works beautifully and we literally get the best of both worlds.

  2. So true! To be honest, I rarely watch comic book movies, because I assume (unfairly, I know, but I will be stubborn!) that they ALL are thin on interesting relationships and interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict. And, all that cool superhero stuff doesn’t interest me in theory, though I frequently end up being interested when I’m strong-armed into watching one. (Sort of like a going to a party I don’t expect to enjoy, but ending up staying until the joint closes down.) I know they aren’t all like that. I saw Logan recently and thoroughly enjoyed it — just the sort of small-scale, big-emotional-impact story I like.

    I’ve enjoyed many, many stories that were technically flawed because they engaged me emotionally. And vice versa, really. And I do think there are concrete way to up the emotional impact of a story. Real emotional response is going to be subjective to the reader, BUT I believe a writer can maximize the possibility of emotional response by making sure the STUFF is there to be responded to. If the story means something to me, there’s a good chance it will mean something to someone else, too. And if it doesn’t mean anything to me, what am I really do it for, anyway?

    • I won’t say you’re wrong (compared to other types of movies, the personal stakes are usually a bit lower in superhero movies), but besides Logan, there are some great examples of fantastic character drama in superhero movies. Captain America: Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy are both excellent examples of this. Also even though they’re silly at times, the first two Christopher Reeves Superman movies are fantastic.

      The previous Wolverine movie, The Wolverine, started off with some good character work and relationship writing, but it was ruined in the third act thanks to what is best described as a studio mandated robotic boss fight.

      • Ben, I have heard good things about some of these movies! I’m usually a costume-drama kind of girl, but I know there is some really thoughtful work being done in the action area.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, yes, yes to liking flawed stories that are emotionally engaging. It’s the *one* thing the author has to get right. All the technical stuff can help us achieve it, but it takes that extra magic ingredient as well.

  3. I enjoyed this movie, but kind of forgot about it shortly after both my viewings, but I couldn’t explain why. Maybe it’s because, while entertaining, I just couldn’t bring myself to care enough. This post explains why.

    Like you said, there are hints of great conflicts that just aren’t touched on at all. The only true emotional stakes are Strange’s own personal struggle with his hand injury and how it limits him. Once he starts figuring out magic though, the movie seems to completely forget about that. It’s hard to keep that level of emotional stake in mind when the movie forgets it exists.

    I won’t say I always succeed, but I try to place some sort of direct personal stakes in the story for at least one of the major characters in every story I write.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sadly, I find the majority of Hollywood movies are like that these days. They’re all right while you’re watching them, but afterwards, they are either promptly forgotten or you start to realize how bad they really were. :p

  4. Great post! I especially love this reminder that we can create the perfect plot, filled with nail-biting twists and action, but still fail to absorb our readers. If a story lacks emotional stakes, then the reader will not care about the characters (even if they are well-crafted), or the plot (even if it is artfully written).

    Having the antagonist be the source of emotional stakes is something I am currently doing in my WIP. I will have to admit, it’s difficult to write, but it brings great tension (in the form of betrayal) to my story.

    Thank you for another great post!

    ~Caitlin @ Quills & Coffee
    http://www.caitlinlambert.com

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Emotional stakes can definitely be tough to write. When we’re doing them right, they tweak our own emotional issues and they can *hurt.* But if it hurts, you know you’re doing something right. 😉

  5. Really interesting analysis here. I likewise came out of the theater a bit underwhelmed by Doctor Strange (though the visuals in 3D were incredible). Your thoughts here were helpful for me to understand why exactly the story didn’t completely work for me. I wonder how much of the story is hurt by the fact that Strange’s potential relationships are all rather scattered and in different spheres of his life (Palmer in NY, and Mordo in the sorceror places). The story felt like it was trying to do too much with all three central relationships (Mordo, Palmer, & the Ancient One), and thus failed at making any one of them particularly great.

    I’ll also throw out there that I personally wasn’t a fan of how the character arc worked. It had a lot of potential and /almost/ worked. But I didn’t feel like I got to see Strange practicing selflessness at all. His training didn’t force him to work outside of himself IMO, so the ending felt unearned and I didn’t believe Strange was selfless enough to actually make that sort of decision with Dormamu. The beginning and end set up the potential for a great character arc. But I would have liked to see him be forced to practice selflessness on the small-scale more before stepping it up to make the ultimate sacrifice with Dormamu.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, in the end, I agree about the character arc. The right pieces were there, but largely because of the weak emotional stakes, it was never developed as deeply as it should have been.

  6. farouche says:

    I don’t generally watch comic-based movies; the only Marvel one I’ve seen I can recall is the first Iron Man movie.

    But your post resonated for me b/c it describes how I felt about Rogue One, which I just watched. I liked the premise of the movie but I was bored at the end for several reasons. First, I felt that the attempt to steal the plans (and the huge battle) weren’t the right set up for the film that follows. A more covert operation would have been better suited. The battle and the ending contradicted parts of Star Wars to me.

    More important, I didn’t care that all the characters died because I didn’t care about them. A smaller, more character driven plot with fewer special effects might have changed that. I didn’t buy that the two clinging to each other at the end had romantic feelings for each other. The most well developed character was the robot. Sure, there was back story for the female lead (some of which was interesting) but it wasn’t enough.

    • I felt completely the same way about Rogue One. A lot of my friends saw it and loved it, but I just never connected with any of the characters (except for the monk/half-Jedi dude–that guy was awesome, but a minor character alone can’t carry the full weight of a movie). Interestingly enough, even though it had a better plot than Force Awakens IMO, I ended up liking Force Awakens more because even though the plot was repetitious with New Hope, I felt a lot more connected to the characters and their relationships than I was with Rogue One.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, as I talked about in my structural analysis of Rogue One, the First Act was problematic, which robbed it of the strong foundation it needed to really make it resonate.

  7. The Fate of the Furious just came out, and it surprisingly nailed this same concept that Doctor Strange failed. Emotional stakes tied in to every part of the story.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As whacko as that series can sometimes be, its emotional stakes are usually comparatively very good. The story is all about “family” after all.

  8. Great post, I have a question for you. In my work in progress the relationship which drives the MC to Hell and back is one with her boyfriend who is murdered as the inciting incident. It is her grief which sends her on a journey, and begins to tear away pieces of her soul. The climactic shift will (I hope, I haven’t written it yet) be away from holding on to the past and thus the need to avenge it, to taking her experience into a future role very different from where we found her at the beginning of the book.
    Does this count as a driving relationship? There are plenty of others, but this is the main one.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes and no. Yes, it’s a great catalyst from the “past” (even if it’s featured in the First Act). But it *probably* isn’t enough to carry the entire book. Who becomes the primary relationship character *after* the boyfriend’s death?

      • She goes through a journey of self discovery, but the next really essential relationship is with the villain. There is also the secondary MC who she will need to reckon with at the end. I’ll have to give it some thought. Fortunately it’s a first draft, so some snarky comments in the margin and I can let it percolate for a year.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          As I mention in the post, it’s great when the antagonist is the primary relationship character, since it keeps plot and theme tight.

  9. R. Parkway says:

    Confession: I learned so much from this post and I am definitely applying this to my writing, so thank you, but I still loved this movie because I am such a sucker for cool special effects and amazing soundtracks! My blasted Achille’s heel!!!

    Again, thanks for all the work you do on this website, my mind is spinning with ideas right now! I can totally fix this in my writing now. Phew!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Nothing wrong with that! Quite a few of my favorite stories are technically flawed. 🙂

  10. Kate Johnston says:

    I didn’t see this movie, but you’ve done a great job outlining it here so that I can pretty much know what I missed (or didn’t miss)! I feel that many current movies lack this relationship factor you’re talking about, or glaze over it. Unfortunately, I feel the same about many books written today. They open with action I can’t emotionally connect with because I haven’t connected with the protagonist yet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yep, sadly, it’s become de rigeur for Hollywood movies in the last decade–and not just the big blockbusters.

  11. Andrewiswriting says:

    Wow.

    I am so blown away by how much we disagree on this one! Possibly even more than Avengers Age of Ultron. Where to start?

    Strange being a jerk. Loved that. Absolutely loved it. The character in the beginning thinks he’s smarter than everyone around him, and while he softens a touch from his perspective at Kamar Taj, he is still this guy at the end. The Ancient One notes it in her dying moment, and when he defeats Dormammu (which is NOT a sacrifice, by the way), he cheats because he still thinks (knows?) he’s smarter than everyone around him.
    He knew he had Dormannu by the proverbials, and he was never in any real risk (ok, the pain of a thousand deaths, but meh reset it’s just pain to a guy who’s had a bucketload already).

    I’ve been reading these characters for 45 years and I went into that walkout scene with Christine thinking don’t be just the same don’t be just the same don’t be just… yay! When he tells her to leave.

    I think Strange’s journey is different to everyone else’s because STRANGE is different. He’s an island, self-sufficient, content in his own superiority. And at the end of the movie he’s still that guy. He tells an immortal thunder god how it’s gonna be, for cryin’ out loud. Strange is just as selfish as Pangborn in his own, larger (because Dr Stephen Strange is all that and a bag of chips) way. Strange saves the day because it’s necessary, not because he’s emotionally invested.

    To be honest I couldn’t have dealt with another origin story where the redeemable jerk has that moment of misty-eyed epiphany, staring into camera as omg-I-finally-get-it, especially from this character. I loved that he was, and remains, different to and apart from the herd.

    For mine, this movie delivered on the character exactly the way I wanted it to (which may be why I’ve been back to see it five times…)

    Just as an aside, how brutal was that car crash? I think that’s the single most brutal scene I’ve seen in a Marvel movie yet, and it happened to an ordinary human!

    To my own stuff, my emotional stakes in The Tyrant of Arcadia are pretty simple: in a genre where the protagonist is usually an orphan, I’ve just had the Big Bad kidnap the protagonist’s father. I also have other characters around him who he cares about, friends, mentors, love interests – but Abe’s father is the main ticket. So the audience should be conditioned to find this a bit of a drama.

    How good is that Thor:Ragnarok trailer?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      We’ll agree to disagree on Strange, but definitely agree on Ragnarok‘s trailer. 😉

      I will freely admit, having only seen the film once, that my general opinion of it could change after a few watching. And I also agree that a “misty-eyed moment of epiphany” wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t Stephen’s being jerk, in itself, that was a problem for me, but rather than it felt like it lacked contrast and context–which perhaps you brought to the movie yourself, since you were already familiar with the characters.

      • Andrewiswriting says:

        I just think it’s a different type of story, with a different type of hero, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

        Strange begins the movie as a type of god; he’s not A surgeon, he’s THE surgeon. He demonstrates this in the way he removes the bullet (you can’t do that freehand; I can), in his conviction (not hubris) that he could have fixed his hands, and that even the best of the rest can’t.

        At the end of the movie he’s just a different type of god-surgeon. The arc in this movie (in my opinion) is in the mechanics of his impact on the world. He’s still the same guy, so apart from a little perspective and appreciation of others, it’s almost a flat emotional arc, the journey is in losing one set of tools and gaining another.

        Consistently throughout, he and the Ancient One both compare magic to medicine and science. When she opens his mind, we get the single biggest emotional response in the whole movie, as Strange realises that the knowledge
        he needs may be in his grasp. He’s about knowledge, not emotion.

        He doesn’t get emotionally attached to the patient, he gets to work. Christine’s all ready to sit down, hold hands and cry with the family, Strange doesn’t even face them square on, he’s so ready to move to the next challenge.

        I would hope, in Infinity War, that they don’t fall into the cliché of Stark v Strange, but instead make it Cap and Strange who bump against each other.

        Cap is forceful, arrogant (yes) virtue, where Strange is equally forceful, arrogant pragmatism. I think Cap could understand Mordo’s position at the end. Yes, we won the battle, but we won it the wrong way.

        • Andrewiswriting says:

          And I totally get why it didn’t work for you, I just think in the end it doesn’t have to satisfy everyone.

          The correct answer to ‘which is better, chocolate, strawberry or vanilla ice cream?’ is ‘and’

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Yes, and I totally agree with that as well. At the end of the day, art is always going to be subjective. I don’t necessarily agree with your take on the movie (or, rather, I still feel it could have been done much better), but I envy you for having more fun with it. 😉

        • Joe Long says:

          I haven’t seen this movie. Last night I was thinking of how the descriptions reminded me of Dr. House, one of the best loved jerks of fiction, and this cements it further.

          House was the best at what he did, but he had to constantly remind himself of that. He preferred to not even meet the patient. He didn’t save patients out of empathy but because he wanted to prove that he could. He was an insufferable jerk to demonstrate that the only reason he was kept around was because his talents were invaluable and irreplaceable.

          • Paul Bateman says:

            What I was thinking, sort of. (My wife pointed out the House impersonation while I though he was playing Sherlock with an accent.) The emotional journey is about proving that he is the best at what he does. It’s for himself, not really for anyone else. It’s an odd thing that people say they become clinicians to help people, but at the same time they can’t be too emotionally involved with there patients – see Carter in ER when he goes through his first patient death. Many people actually become clinicians as they are high achievers and want the challenge of a profession were high achievement is essential. Unfortunately, this leads to the patients being second to the clinician’s ego. So Dr Strange’s journey is about being the best at something else, something he shares with both House and Sherlock. (Cumberbatch also does something similar in terms of being the best at problem solving as Turning in the Imitation game.) Another point is how both Robert Downey Jr and Benedict Cumberbatch play Sherlock is pretty much how they play Iron and Dr Strange, respectively, but with different accents. As watchable as they both might be, does this suggest that they are typecast or limited as actors?

          • Paul Bateman says:

            PS – I quite enjoyed Dr Strange, probably as it was under 2 hours while a number of other films, including Marvel ones, tend to go on for over two hours and start to feel a bit baggy.

  12. You are so right. A story that is perfect in every way, but leaves no emotional connection will not leave a lasting impression on the reader. On the other side, check out a movie like Kick Ass. If you look at its plot, it looks kind of dumb, but for whatever reason triggered a huge emotional response for me and I loved it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yeah, that one surprised me too. Definitely an acquired taste kind of thing, but it’s about a whole lot more than the juvenile humor and violence it offers on the surface.

  13. I couldn’t read this without thinking of Star Wars. There, you had the emotional conflicts. Luke losing his aunt and uncle to the Empire. Leia’s home planet being blown up by the Death Star. Obi-Wan showing Luke the ways of the Force. By the end, you were pulling for Luke to blow up the Death Star. That’s the reason ths movie made over $800 million at the box office 40 years ago, when ticket prices were a lot lower, and became a cultural phenomenon.

    By contrast, look at Phantom Menace, which labeled as Episode 1 of the Star Wars saga. If that really had been the first Star Wars movie released, there wouldn’t have been any others. There was no emotional involvement, except wanting to slap Jar Jar Binks around every time he opened his mouth. What George Lucas had in the first trilogy, he lost in the second trilogy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      And don’t forget the excellent relationship characters in New Hope! 🙂

      Phantom Menace never even knows who it’s main character really is, but less how to provide appropriate relationship characters.

  14. Well I thought the movie kicked butt. But I do see much merit in your criticisms.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Ultimately, technical criticisms mean nothing in the face of a viewer/reader’s enjoyment. That’s the only thing that matters in the end.

  15. J.M Barlow says:

    Yup, spot on analysis. I actually fell asleep trying to watch this movie because I just didn’t care about… any of it, really.

    I’m glad you posted this, because it puts another thing on the table for me to carefully consider with my stories. The more I read these articles, the more I find myself re-thinking the nature of the conflicts in some of my WIPs.

  16. AK Khalid says:

    Please keep up with your amazing blogs so valuable information thank you very much. I bought all your books I love how you explain everything.

  17. K.M, I strongly agree with the ideas behind your post. However, I don’t believe this movie was the proper vehicle. Comic book superheroes and heroines sometimes can’t be taken out of context. But Hollywood continues to do so because comic books are probably the first place where young readers became invested and mesmerized with beings who suspend reality. The genre is better served as animation. Comic books deal with the unexplainable sometimes and extraordinary times and places. Dr Strange can’t honestly be compared to Iron Man since he is not an a average protagonist who reacts emotionally with people in his life. I can see why you were bored. It is not your regular comic book movie. The movie concentrated on explaining his power which took up a lot of time and space. It had to be done if other movies are to follow. If you can, watch the animated version or get a copy of the comic book. But I’m a comic book nerd so you don’t have to believe me. (smile).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree that, having gotten the necessary exposition of this movie out of the way, it definitely provides the foundation for the potential of better things to come. Most of the Marvel series have worked that way.

  18. I’m not sure if the tv series Jessica Jones is in the same Marvel world, as I normally don’t watch these types of tables/movies, but I heard good things about it and took a chance and am really enjoying it. As I read this post I realized it’s because of the strong emotional storylines and the risks the main character takes in relation to her relationships with other characters.
    This has given me lots to think on as I plot right now, thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I’ve heard good things as well. The Defenders mash-up looks fun too!

  19. Jessica Hall says:

    I find that in my own stories, though the premise and ideas are on point and get people to want to read more (namely family and friends) I find that my characters lack deep, emotional relationships and thus they are even a bore for me to write. Thus, I become apathetic which eventually leads to writers block. Writing what you know about yourself and including some juicy tidbits for the why of the character I find helps. For myself, I am a Christian as well and I think back to the questions I had before I became a Christian. Many people ask what love is and how to make it last, something my current character is asking herself, and this even leads to the potential for exploring her current relationships deeper. How beautiful it is that we have personal experiences to help us connect with readers on a deeper level. To share stories and heal broken hearts through words backed by meaning and symbolism. Unfortunately, much of Hollywood has lost this personal connection.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great insight. It’s deep questions, much more than simple answers, that make for compelling stories.

  20. This was spot on what I needed to learn at this point in my writing. Thanks!

    I think this lesson is as important as knowing about story structure. If structure is the skeleton of the story, then this lesson on emotional stakes is the heart that gives it life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Bob! And, yes, I agree. Structure can help us achieve emotional investment, but it’s *not* emotional investment in itself. If we have to choose between the two (heaven forbid!), it’s much better to choose emotional investment.

  21. This may explain why some of things I watch, I simply could not get into it even though in technical terms, there was really nothing wrong with them.

    A question. How would you make your antagonist a relationship character exactly? Must he/she be someone the protagonist had an established relationship/connection or could an antagonist be someone the main character never knew until later in the story? s

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Primary relationship characters needs to be present from the First Plot Point on, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be someone the protagonist doesn’t meet until that point.

  22. Francisco says:

    Hi. This post is so useful. I did have a question though: In “#3: Have You Tied Your Emotional Stakes to the Plot Stakes?” — you mention that the relationship character should be “2.. the focus of the conflict resolution in the Climactic Moment.” What exactly do you mean by “conflict resolution in the Climactic Moment?” I know what you mean by Climactic Moment, but not sure exactly what you mean by “conflict resolution” in this context. Thanks again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Climactic Moment is the moment when the main conflict is resolved, one or another. The protagonist either definitively gains his goal–or loses it. The antagonist in this scenario should ideally be a prominent relationship character, who can tie together both the plot’s external stakes and the protagonist’s internal stakes.

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