This week, Leslie pitched The King’s Speech as a great example of emotional stakes. This 2010 film, which won Oscars for best picture, best actor, and best screenplay, was directed by Tom Hooper from a screenplay by David Seidler, who himself developed a stammer as a child.
Genre: Performance with Status Sentimental
- Beginning Hook – During his speech at the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition in 1925, the Duke of York falters because of his stammer, and initial efforts to treat his stammer fail, but when speech therapist Lionel Logue shows him that he doesn’t stammer when listening to music, the Duke must decide whether to sacrifice his pride and comfort to pursue treatment. He negotiates with Logue, and treatment begins.
- Middle Build – King George V dies, and the Duke’s older brother David soon abdicates the throne, making it all the more necessary that the new King George the VI overcome his stammer, but after insisting that Logue attend the coronation where his family will be seated, he learns that Logue is not a doctor or trained in speech therapy and must decide whether to continue his treatment. Logue goads George VI into declaring that he has a voice and explains that his perseverance and courage will make him a great king. The king performs his brief portions of the coronation without a problem.
- Ending Payoff – Britain declares war on Germany, and George VI must deliver a nine-minute speech to the nation, the importance of which is related to the role of the monarch as one who speaks for the people, and when the time comes to speak and Logue tells him to say the speech to him as a friend, the king delivers an almost flawless performance. In contrast to the disappointing looks from the inciting incident performance, everyone outside the recording booth cheers the king after he finishes.
Leslie – Why I chose this story? Special thanks to Valerie! I love this film for lots of reasons, but I wanted to get to the bottom of why it’s such a crowd pleaser. Rotten Tomatoes tells us that this film scored a 95 percent approval rating from critics and 92 percent from audience members. It’s considered to be the most successful independent British film ever, with Best Film BAFTA and Oscar awards, among others. To earn results like these, you need solid story structure, but you also need to get the audience involved with emotional stakes.
What do we mean by emotional stakes?
Emotional stakes come from story elements that create the tension readers feel that compels them to keep reading. More than that, emotional stakes help to focus the reader’s attention where and when you want, evoking intense emotions and sparking interest.
Characters are the vehicles for emotional stakes, but that doesn’t mean they must be likeable. Villains who arouse disgust or anger can be as memorable or more than a hero who makes a great sacrifice.
If you’ve ever cried or cheered or yelled while reading or watching a story, if you’ve ever talked to characters who can’t hear you, then you’ve experienced emotional stakes at work. No matter how many times I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life, I always want to shake Uncle Billy before he loses the building and loan deposits. Before I talk about how you can earn that kind of emotional buy-in, let’s look at why figuring this out is time well spent.
Valerie – Let me jump in here for a minute, Leslie. Are emotional stakes then the same as developing empathy?
Leslie – Great question! Don’t get me wrong, empathy helps. But it’s a different inquiry from emotional stakes in the reader. A classic example is Lolita. We don’t have to empathize with Humbert Humbert to want to read to the end of the story. His despicable behavior creates interest and makes him memorable, though.
Why do we need emotional stakes in stories, and particularly in The King’s Speech?
The more the reader cares about the character, the more likely they will feel emotionally invested in the result and read to the end. Once you’ve persuaded the reader to buy the book, it’s not a done deal. You have to convince them to keep going with every page and show them that their time and emotional investment are worth it. Your surprising but inevitable ending is wasted on the reader who never gets there, so you need to do all you can to make sure they do.
We always need an intellectual or emotional hook to compel the reader to finish the story, but it’s especially important when we have a character that most people can’t immediately relate to.
King George VI as portrayed in The King’s Speech is not only a person who possesses great wealth, but is a member of the royal family, second in line for the throne as the story opens, and crowned king before the end of the middle build. The point is made over and over that he has trouble relating to the average British citizen.
There are plenty of people in the UK, Commonwealth, and US who are interested in the royal family, and that would certainly be a core element of the target audience for this film. But the ratings and awards suggest it appeals to a much wider audience.
In addition, the events portrayed are historical, and even if we aren’t privy to all the details, we know how things turned out. That means that for the overall story, the narrative drive operating is dramatic irony, where we possess more information than the character does. So something must make us want to know how the protagonist overcomes his external and internal antagonists. We’re getting a dramatized, behind the scenes look at George VI’s life, but we need more than a little curiosity to sit through a film or a book.
So let’s return to the question, how do you get the kind of buy-in or reader engagement that increases the odds your readers will finish your story and want more? What are the elements of emotional stakes? Orson Scott Card gives us a handy list, and I’ll show how they operate in The King’s Speech.
Suffering – This can be physical or emotional suffering, or both. Intense feeling on behalf of your characters yields intense feeling in the reader, so long as you don’t strain credibility and the suffering isn’t trivial or unbearable.
- Watching Logue’s young student struggle through delivering a message
- Observing his father delivery the Christmas message with accompanying lecture about how kings must be actors and that David may not be suitable
- At Balmoral, the duke confronts his brother for failing in his duties as king. David taunts him about the stammer. (midpoint)
- Embarrassed after being vulnerable and insisting that Logue join his family at the coronation only to find that Logue is not a trained speech therapist.
- Delivering the speech to the nation about the war with Germany.
Sacrifice – different from suffering because it’s an active choice, not something circumstances have thrust upon them
- The initial treatment is humiliating and uncomfortable, but he’s chosen to suffer in an attempt to be able to do his duty.
- During his first visit with Logue, he’s asked deeply personal questions. That’s not on for the royal family in general (certainly during that time), but particularly for the Duke, who is a private man, we can understand how much this cost him emotionally.
- After David abdicates, the Duke of York accepts the position as king, though it represents a hardship to himself and his family.
Jeopardy – This is the anticipation of suffering and is useful to direct the reader’s attention and raise emotional tension. The more helpless the character in a given situation, the more intense the feeling. Jeopardy magnifies the force of antagonism, but note readers will pay attention to how you pay off jeopardy and whether the result lives up to the threat (doing the unexpected is a great way to innovate, again so long as it’s believable and bearable).
Jeopardy is a strong tool used throughout the film because every time the the duke and later king must speak in a high-pressure situation, we worry and wonder if he’ll be able to come through it okay.
- Opening scene when the duke is required to speak on behalf of his father. People attempt to reassure him, but it doesn’t appear to help him at all. He’s in terrible anguish with everyone looking at him. The silence drags on but when he begins, raising hopes that he may pull it off, he falters. We see the listeners are disappointed, his wife in tears. Jeopardy becomes suffering in fact.
- Coronation approaches, but George VI performs his four short responses without a problem.
- Delivers speech to the nation upon declaration of war, he suffers, but delivers an almost perfect performance.
Sexual Tension – OSC calls this the “jeopardy of sex,” except for the negative connotation of jeopardy. When you have potential sexual partners in the mix, you raise the possibility it will happen, and people notice. Possibility and conflict is more interesting than fulfillment.
This element is a minor one in this story and comes with a twist. It plays out with the Duke’s older brother and heir to the throne, David, who is infatuated with Wallis Simpson, a twice married woman. (The standard at the time was that the king, as head of the Church of England couldn’t have a consort who was divorced.) David’s complete disregard for his duty as heir (and then king) raises our emotional engagement because it ratchets up the tension on the duke. Whatever negative feelings we have toward an antagonist, are generally balanced with positive feelings for the protagonist.
Signs and Portents – Connect the fate of the character to the events in the wider world. This can be subtle, as when the setting or weather reflects the mood of the character’s interaction, or can be literal, like in The King’s Speech when a monarch with a strong voice in times of world conflict can pull the people together.
- We can see the signs that David is not going to fulfill his duties, and he’s presented as someone you wouldn’t want being in charge under the best of circumstances.
- Similarly, in the background we see Britain edging closer to war with Germany, requiring a strong leader with a strong voice.
Kim – Here we have another compelling true story adapted into a Performance story, but it is a case study in excellence that can be transferred to any genre.
I wanted to look at the key moments that establish the stakes, both public and private, and how they build on one another.
Admittedly, it’s been difficult to narrow down which moments to highlight for the show today, because every micro moment of this story is crafted for a compelling emotional experience for the audience, building on what came before and supporting what comes next.
One could do an entire case study just on the opening scene…from the text displayed beforehand (King George V reigns over a quarter of the world’s people) to the intense and comic preparations of the BBC announcer, followed by his entire monologue about the wireless and the address, where he notes it was first given by the King two years ago, then David the year before, and now it will be Albert/the Duke of York.
Meanwhile we see our protagonist standing in the wings, papers in hand looking like he’d rather run into traffic than speak to anyone. This is the first time our protagonist ever had to broadcast. No wonder he’s nervous, many people would be nervous. His wife’s gentle touch of comfort as though she knows nothing will really help. And then as the climax plays out and he struggles with his stammer, and all the faces of those around him look away.
We have a crystal clear value shift of Respect to Shame and very clearly demonstrates what our protagonist is up against. This is a great example of showing rather than telling—don’t just talk about a character having trouble speaking in public, make them do it and then have minutes of painful silence. This immersion into the character’s reality creates deep emotional connections and stakes for the audience
Using the Herald to Establish Stakes
One distinct pattern that came up while studying this film is the use of Herald Moments, that is there strong, consistent, well-timed moments that announced what was a stake and made it clear things weren’t about to get any easier for our protagonist. In The King’s Speech, this often related to the external aspects of the plot, the public stakes such David shirking his duties and the impending threat of the war with Germany.
In a podcast episode on Hero’s Journey Archetypes, Shawn says, “You need to have moments in your story that remind the reader about the consequences and the stakes that are at hand. The Herald is a technique in an archetype to have somebody in your story relate that to the audience again … The Herald role is really just about having moments in your story where somebody kind of sums things up pretty quickly, meaning they kind of hammer home what your hero is facing. They bring up things that the reader needs to be reminded of … You want to pick out moments usually right before the big moments.”
In the scene where Bertie’s wife goes to see Lionel Logue for the first time, she states that her husband is required to speak publicly and it’s not possible to change jobs wherein Lionel makes a joke about indentured servitude which is not all the far from the truth. Then Lionel says “I can cure your husband, I need trust and total equality.”
This moment delivers both the gravity of the situation (there is no way he can get out of it) and hope (he can cure him, but it will cost them something).
In the scene where the King reads his Christmas broadcast, effortlessly. Afterwards, so many things are said in this scene, it’s the first to really show what is at stake for Bertie. King acts as the first major Herald, laying it all out: expectations of people + Hitler/Stalin + older brother shirking his duties. The King barks who will stand between? You? “You’re going to have to do a lot more.”
This takes what was joked about as indentured servitude to a whole new level. Which is important for the audience to see and understand, not just for the context of any story, but specifically because of the class divide between royalty and commoners.
Then we experience of the humorous training montage and progress so we feel an uptick of hope.
Then in the MB, the King’s health is failing, guardianship is instated, and the first glimpse of David’s infatuation with Wallis Simpson is shown—he acts like a lovesick puppy in the phone. This is one of those quick moments that conveys so much, and we can see how very different the two brothers are.
Another poignant moment occurs When the King passes, David sobs on his mother’s shoulder and she can’t even hug him back…this moment shows the environment they were raised in and acts as a good set-up for Bertie’s tell all that is to come.
Bertie comes to see Logue and opens up about his childhood, all the events that created his stammer. Abusive nanny, harsh parental environment, leg braces. Has to sing it in order to say it, which has such a haunting effect. Absolutely tragic. Ends with a small exchange where Bertie thanks him and Lionel says “That’s what friends are for.” Bertie replies, “I wouldn’t know.”
Shortly after we see Bertie’s confrontation with David regarding Wallis Simpson and the duty of a King—David accuses him of trying to take the throne and Bertie absolutely falls apart, can’t say a single word to him.
The sequence of events here is important. Having Bertie confide in Lionel about his childhood before he has his confrontation with David and clams up, puts the moment in real and powerful context. We can infer so much now because we know more of what Bertie went through as a child.
After the ALL IS LOST moment with Logue—now Bertie is on his own–there is a sequence of scenes lots of Herald-Esque moments:
Prime minister says “govt will have to resign” if David doesn’t give up his intent to marry Wallis Simpson.
Churchill says “War is coming with Germany” and asks Bertie which name he will choose—he can’t say a single word.
David renounces the throne, we see Bertie sign, clearly agitated, then he must read a statement to the group of officials in room with all the portraits
This sequence builds to the DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL, where Bertie sobs, “I’m not a king.” It’s at that moment when his wife tells the sweet story about refusing his proposals…this is a powerful moment where she flips the shame and respect values on their head by praising his stammer as one of the reasons she married him.
Her goes to see Logue, they make it through the coronation.
Then after the coronation the watch the reel and see footage with Hitler giving an impassioned speech to Nazi Germany. It highlights the power of a voice, specifically as a leader of a country, and the stakes that they are up against with Hitler being such a powerful orator.
In the ending payoff, they ratchet up the stakes again:
Prime Minister resigns
It’s interesting to note that although we have reached the height of the external stakes—war with Germany—we can only appreciate Bertie’s specific role of having to deliver the worldwide announcement because we’ve so intimately experienced his personal stakes.
The King’s Speech is such an amazing case study of establishing stakes, herald moments, sequencing of events, showing versus telling–any writer would benefit in studying it closely.
Leslie – This story is also a great example of an anti-virgin’s promise story, in which the protagonist is reluctant to shine while others around them encourage them to reach for fulfillment. In other words, the roles of the protagonist and their family or kingdom are reversed. That’s not the main topic today, so I didn’t discuss it in the recording, but here are the conventions and scenes for the anti-virgin’s promise story.
- Dependent world: When the story begins, the Duke of York is not the king, not even first in line for the throne, but he is a member of the royal family (known as the firm) and expected to do his duty to support king and country, which includes giving public speeches.
- Price of conformity: The Duke of York wants to live a quiet and private life with his wife and daughters. He’s not interested in being king.
- Opportunity to shine: The duke is asked to deliver a speech at the closing ceremonies of the Empire Exhibition, but fails because of his stammer.
- Dresses the part: The role of the mentor is played by Logue, who gives the duke an opportunity to hear his voice without a stammer while listening to music. He provides a recording that enables the duke to understand that his problem is not a physical one.
- Secret world: The duke practices in private, using the unconventional methods that Logue suggests.
- No longer fits in their world: Once crowned king after his brother abdicates, the new King George VI cannot lead any semblance of a quiet life.
- Caught shining: The archbishop learns of the speech sessions with Logue and investigates his credentials.
- Gives up what keeps them stuck: Instead of giving in to the archbishop, he keeps working with Logue and insists that he be present at the coronation.
- Kingdom in chaos: Britain is moving toward war with Germany, and the king realizes his people need a strong leader who can speak for them.
- Wanders in the wilderness: Despite all his practice, the king still struggles to speak in public and recognizes that this could endanger his people.
- Chooses their own light: The king sacrifices privacy (chooses to share with Logue the painful experiences that most likely led to his stammer) to gain the full benefit of Logue’s sessions.
- Re-ordering: The king sets up conditions for his speech (open window, presence of Logue, etc.) to the nation to give him the best shot at being successful.
- The kingdom is brighter: Because the king was willing to sacrifice his privacy, he overcame his stammer and was able to deliver his speech to the nation announcing that Britain was at war with Germany.
Testing the Proposition
Valerie – Before we hear from Team B, I want to pop in and talk about something I raised last week when we studied Inception. I said that, “For dramatic irony to work, it’s essential to have a compelling protagonist, otherwise the audience won’t engage emotionally. What was anxiety in suspense becomes compassion in dramatic irony.” In The King’s Speech we’re in a state of dramatic irony because we know the story of King George VI, but in this presentation they (the filmmakers and Colin Firth) have made Bertie hugely compelling.
Anne – This movie was a great choice for examining emotional stakes, and I’m so glad you proposed it, Leslie! I tried watching it a couple of months ago and the stakes felt so high for me, personally, that I had to turn it off.
And this isn’t because I share that fear of public speaking which reportedly afflicts 75% of the population. I’m one of the minority who has no problem holding forth in front of a microphone or to a room full of strangers. It’s certainly not because I can relate to member of the British royal family.
But fear of humiliation! That I can relate to. I could so easily imagine how fearful Bertie must be. I could feel that combination of fear and self-restriction that arises from childhood trauma. I kept saying, “Oh my God, that poor guy!” I was deeply anxious for him. And though it was hard for me to watch him embarrass himself in front of the world, it made him seem real. I felt empathy for him.
Somehow, this royal duke–this guy who becomes king and emperor over the largest empire in history–had to be cast down low enough that his struggles and his triumph could mean something to the average person. To accomplish this, the buildup of empathetic tension in the early scenes was absolutely essential.
Jarie made this point a few weeks back in our episode on Rudy. He pointed out that the sporting triumph of a great athlete and natural born winner isn’t much of a story, but put a small, awkward, determined little dude like Rudy on the football field and we’ve got not something to root for, SOMEONE to root for. We can relate. We can imagine his feelings because we’ve had feelings like them ourselves.
Leslie’s tour of Orson Scott Card’s five elements of emotional stakes–which was brilliant, by the way–gave a big picture. I’d like to look at the detail level. The small, line by line choices a writer makes.
John Gardner in The Art of Fiction talks a lot about verisimilitude. It means, literally, “seeming like the truth.” A feeling of reality. He rags for a bit on the dictum often delivered to writers to “write what you know”, and how it’s often misconstrued to mean “write about only the people and places and events you’ve actually experienced.”
If that were a law that writers had to follow to the letter, obviously there’d be no One Ring to Rule Them All, no Ghost of Christmas past, and no Mark Watney on Mars. There’d be no stories about kings except those written BY kings. Well, you get the idea.
Gardner says, “The fact that the story is true of course does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing.” He goes on to make this important point:
“The primary subject of fiction is and always has been human emotions, values, and beliefs. Novelist Nicholas Delbanco has remarked that by the age of four one has experienced nearly everything one needs as a writer of fiction: love, pain, loss, boredom, rage, guilt, fear of death. The writer’s business is to make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations of action by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader.”
What makes it possible for stories like this one, about a king, written by non-kings, to feel real and emotionally relatable to an ordinary person like me? Verisimilitude. And what creates verisimilitude? Detail.
So our story wisely opens by providing very, very carefully chosen details. The top hat Bertie wears, the ritual the BBC announcer goes through to prepare to go on live radio, the long bank of radio transmitting equipment, labeled alphabetically with the names of countries in the British Empire–every detail in that opening scene conveys the enormity of Bertie’s responsibility. He’s like a prisoner going to his own execution as he walks a bleak corridor towards the looming microphone.
It may look like mere historical detail, designed to build up the world–and it is that. But the question to ask yourself in watching an emotionally engaging movie or reading a novel is which details? Of all possible details that the writer could have included, which did they include? Which did they exclude?
Our anxiety rises as the Duke of York tries to speak but can’t. He manages only a few explosive syllables. Faces turn towards him. His supporters look down, The scene cuts mercifully away just when it becomes utterly unbearable for everyone, including us.
Those are carefully chosen details of story. That’s verisimilitude.
In the interest of time, I’m not going to list a bunch more of these details, but this film–like almost all Oscar-winning screenplays–is a master class in right details, and it’s a great exercise to pick a single scene and notice what isn’t said, what isn’t shown, and notice how the specifics that are left in create a whole world, including your emotional engagement.
Jarie – The challenge of context and world building in a movie like this is helped out tremendously because of history. If this story was not about a real royal family, during a real time in history, the writer would have to spent volumes on building the world. This is the challenge for a writer, looking to do something like The King’s Speech with fictitious characters.
This is where, I think, if you knew nothing of the context of the royal family and World War II, you might be lost. There is a lot of assumptions in knowledge about the royals and even Hitler. One of my favorite scenes is when George VI is impressed by how well Hitler talks — he’s almost a downright fan boy. Who really knows if it happened that way but as a reader/viewer, we know because of history, all the context about how bad Hitler and Germany was during World War II. We also know how well Hitler spoke and the countless propaganda films that drive home the evil of Nazi Germany. As the writer of something like this, we don’t have to create all that — it comes from history for free.
That’s what I think is the crux of why we feel for George VI — built in sympathy rather than created by the writer. I know that he’s a royal but he was born into that — he did not ask for it. It’s also a very British thing to “suck it up” and do your duty, even if you don’t want to. Sure, he could quit like his big brother did but that’s not a typical British Royal way to go. In fact, it’s only happened a handful of times in the entire history of the British Empire. So what does this mean for writers?
While The King’s Speech is an excellent movie that is well acted and written, it gets a lot of help from history. Without the history, the story not have the proper context in which to build the empathy. If you were going to build your own world from scratch, like in Game of Thrones, for example, it would take volumes or eight seasons to get right.
I also took a listen to the real King’s speech (both of them). You can hear the stutter and Colin Firth did a fantastic job reproducing it. Like all the historical performance films we have looked at, the writer had to take some liberties to build the tension and make the characters more sympathetic. What’s wonderful about this movie is that Lionel Logue’s grandson, found Lionel’s notes, personal journals, and letters. Several key critical aspects of the movie are taken directly from these documents. So, unlike some of the other historical performance films we have looked that, this one appears to be accurate except for Lionel’s actual therapy method. That appears to be a mashup of the screenwriters experiences (he had a stammer) and the actors making stuff up.
Leslie – Here are a few more tips to help you apply this concept.
- It’s vital to show what the experience means to the character in the context. It’s not just a matter of increasing suffering and creating greater sacrifices. You’ll notice that George VI suffers and is put in jeopardy because he cares about the role his family plats in the nation.
- Cause and effect are important, otherwise the stakes become bare manipulation, unlikely to encourage re-reading. Like all people, places, things, and events in a well-constructed story, the elements of emotional stakes should have a cause (arise from something organic) and result in an effect.
- Variation is important, like progressive complications and turning points, using the same method of increasing emotional stakes throughout the story falls flat.
- More often than not, these elements are better shown than told.
It may seem funny to talk about evoking emotional intensity in your readers because they are individuals with unique frames of reference, experience, and emotion, and we can’t make them feel a particular emotion. To a great extent, readers will take from a story what they brought with them and what they need. But you can create the conditions that will allow them to become involved in the story, to experience intense feelings about your characters, and carry it with them long after they’ve finished.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. Listen to the episode to hear our answer to this week’s question from Faye Whyte.
Join us next time to for another Story Grid 101 episode. We’re going to be examining the Five Commandments of story in depth through the lens of the delightful 2017 Pixar film Coco. Why not give it a look and follow along?