The Gilded Age: 5 Steps To Raise The Stakes in Your Screenplay

The Gilded Age: 5 Steps To Raise The Stakes in Your Screenplay

This week, we are going to be talking about how to raise the stakes in your screenwriting and TV writing. This is probably one of the most confusing notes that writers tend to get from producers, and one of the most popular.  “Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes! Raise the stakes!”

But what are stakes? Why is it that you can blow something up, burn $3 million bucks, shoot at a baby, and it can still feel like there are no stakes? And then you can watch a show like The Gilded Age where the stakes are about who’s going to come to what dinner party, and feel like the stakes are really high. 

Today, we’re going to be talking about what stakes are and how they work. And I’m going to give you a simple five step process that you can follow to make sure that stakes are happening in your screenplay, without feeling like you have to blow something up every time you get a note from a producer. 

One of the biggest confusions about how to raise the stakes in your screenplay or TV pilot is thinking that stakes are about what happens in your script. 



The Gilded Age is proof that this is certainly not the case. What happens in your screenplay is actually a lot less important than what it means to the character that the “what happens” is happening to. 

And even that is much less important than what is driving the character that it’s happening to. 

Because if something’s happening to a character, but we’re not actually connected to what matters to that character and the journey of that character, then what happens doesn’t really matter. 

And that’s why you can do a lot of big spectacular things to your character and still have the feeling that there are no stakes in your screenplay.


Stakes begin with empathy. Raising the stakes in your screenplay begins with developing empathy for your characters.

We feel stakes when we connect to a character on the big screen or little screen, and we see a tiny piece of ourselves up there, we connect to them, we empathize with them, we feel what it would feel like to be in their shoes. 

This is why we cringe when we watch Curb Your Enthusiasm. And this is why we care when we watch The Gilded Age

It’s not because of the “what’s happens” to your character. It’s because of the “what does it mean?” to the character. 

And in order to develop that “what does it mean?” to the character, there are a couple steps that you can follow. 


STEP #1: To raise the stakes in your screenplay or pilot, make sure you know what the character wants. 

The more specific you can be about what they want, the better. 

Notice, I’m not talking about the audience yet. There’s a whole other level of structure that I call secondary structure that we build, which is about how you communicate this stuff to the audience. And that stuff is really complicated; that takes a long time to learn, a lot of practice and experience.

Whereas these skills that I’m giving you are skills that you can actually use right now, very intuitively, without having a tremendous amount of craft behind you. 

Start out by asking yourself: “do I know what the character wants?”

You’ll be surprised how often you realize that you don’t!

And if you don’t know, don’t freak out! 

If you realize “okay, I’ve got a bunch of cool stuff happening, I got some cool images, I got some cool lines of dialogue, but I actually don’t know what the character wants…” 

Okay, well, choose something! 


When building stakes in your screenplay, the “what” of what your character wants matters much less than the fact that your character wants something.

It’s that want that is going to create the feeling of movement for the character, and that ultimately is going to help us build empathy for that character, and therefore feel the stakes that something actually matters to them. 

If you don’t know what your character wants, don’t stress about it, look around the room and pick up something this character wants… 

For example, I just picked up a staple remover from my desk. And you might think that a staple remover is a pretty crappy object to build stakes around. But again, what it is doesn’t actually matter. 

I’m going to teach you how we can build the same level of stakes we would have in an action movie around a staple remover. 

Here’s how that works. 

To Review:

STEP #1. What does the character want?  We now know what the character wants. Jake wants a staple remover.

STEP #2: To raise the stakes in your screenplay or pilot, make sure the character is actively taking steps to get what they want.


If Jake desperately wants a staple remover, and we don’t know that he’s trying to get a staple remover, if he’s just sitting around the house watching the Gilded Age on television, then, even if he desperately wants a staple remover, we’re not going to know! And therefore we’re not going to feel any stakes.

If you’re writing a novel, if you’re writing a poem, you can go inside your character’s head and understand the want in that way. But when you’re writing a screenplay, you need to externalize those internal desires. And the way we externalize those internal desires is through action. 

We need our character to take action so that we can raise the stakes. 

Stakes come from your character doing things. If your character is not doing things, it doesn’t matter what you do to them. It doesn’t matter what happens to them. It doesn’t matter what happens in your plot. 


If your character is not doing things, there aren’t going to be no stakes in your screenplay, because whatever’s happening isn’t going to matter to them in a way that your audience can actually understand. 

Now, notice,we’re still not talking about the audience yet. We’re not talking about how to communicate that Jake wants to staple remover to the audience. We’re just asking ourselves “Does Jake want the staple remover? Is he taking steps to get it?”

Okay. He just picked it up. He’s taking a step to get it. But you probably noticed that it still feels like there are no stakes. He wanted a staple remover, he came into his office, he picked up a staple remover and started removing some staples. 

What we have now is a super boring scene with no stakes. And it would be exactly the same low stakes if Jake picked up a briefcase with $3 trillion bucks in it as it would be if he picked up a staple remover. 

If your character just gets what they want without even having to try, there are going to be no stakes in your script, because we’re never going to know how much Jake actually wants this staple remover. We’re never going to know what Jake was willing to do for the staple remover, what the staple remover means to him. We won’t be able to tell ourselves that story, unless we do step number three. 


To Review:

STEP #1: Do you know what they want?
STEP #2: Are they taking active steps to get it?


STEP #3: To raise the stakes in your screenplay, make it hard for your character to get what they want. 


If I take the same staple remover, but this time when Jake shows up at his office to remove the staples (that he just loves to remove) the staple remover is gone.

It is not in its traditional place on his desk. He starts looking around, he starts shuffling through the papers on his desk. He upends his laptop. He starts pulling all the books off of his shelves. He starts rifling through drawers. 

Now the whole office is a total disaster. He overturns the bureau, looking behind it. He pulls all the objects out of his closet. 

We might not even know what Jake is looking for yet. But do you see how the stakes are suddenly raised? 

The stakes raised because Jake is now making choices that he would not normally make to get the staple remover. 

We don’t even need to know what the object he’s seeking is.  We can start to feel empathy, we can start to care, because we can see how important whatever this object Jake is seeking, actually is to Jake. 

Along the way. We’re also doing something really cool, which is we’re getting to learn more about Jake.

You knew Jake as the nice guy who does podcasting. You didn’t know the insane Jake who’s willing to destroy his entire office looking for staple remover. 

As we make it hard, we start to understand more about the character, because the character must now make choices that she or he or they would not have made in the past. 

And as he makes these choices, we start to empathize. We start to hope that Jake gets whatever Jake is looking for. We start to feel how important it is, even though it’s just a staple remover. 

To Review:

STEP #1: Do you know what they want?
STEP #2: Are they taking active steps to get it?
STEP #3: Make it hard.


STEP #4: To raise the stakes in your screenplay, once you’ve made it hard, make it harder.

This may seem really obvious, but believe it or not, this is the step that most screenwriters mess up. 

Most screenwriters have this urge to take their foot off the gas pedal; they have this urge to make it easier for their characters. 

After all that looking around and rashing his office, just when we’re starting to feel empathy for Jake, a gift from the screenwriting gods: there is the staple remover in the corner! Thank goodness! Okay, it’s over.  He tried so hard, and he got it. I feel so much better as the writer. 

We do this because there’s a part of us that sees ourselves in these characters. And we don’t want to hurt them. We love them. They’re our babies. But we have to torture them. We have to make it hard. And then we have to make it harder.


If it doesn’t keep getting harder, we’re never going to get to really know the character. And we’re never going to get to really know the stakes of the screenplay. 

When your character is down, that’s when you want to kick them. When your character is struggling, that’s where you want to make it even harder. Raise the stakes by making it hard and then raise the stakes again by making it even harder.

Jake goes through his entire office, he fails to find the staple remover. It’s now a disaster. He’s now working his way through his house, overturning everything, he’s in the kitchen, dumping things out of the junk drawer. He is in the garage, pulling boxes off of the shelves. He is looking everywhere, until his search for the staple remover is completely dead. It is not in his house. That’s when he realizes he’s going to have to go to Staples and buy a new one. 

He goes to get in the car. The car won’t frickin’ start. The battery is dead. He left the door open last night. Okay, he’s got to get to Staples. There. He starts ringing the doorbells of his friends. No, nobody’s home. Nobody’s home. Nobody’s home. 

Oh. The neighbor across the street is home. You know… THAT neighbor.

(The truth is my neighbors are the nicest people in the world. But we’re just going to pretend).

That’s the bad neighbor. That’s the neighbor that nobody talks to, especially Jake. That’s the neighbor that stole his snowblower when he loaned it to him. That’s the neighbor who’s constantly spreading rumors in the neighborhood. That’s the neighbor who brings his dog over to poop in Jake’s yard. That is the horrible neighbor, and Jake has sworn to never speak to him again. 

But there he is, sitting beside his nicely polished Chevy Bolt, the car can get Jake to Staples. 

And we watch as Jake lowers head and his pride, and slugs across the street to go talk to that neighbor, to go prostrate himself and ask for that car so that he can get to Staples. 

You see how each time I made it harder, the stakes of this silly little story kept raising. 

We now actually can understand how important this is to Jake, so important that Jake is willing to swallow his pride and talk to the neighbor. And we’re also getting to see a different side of Jake. Before we saw the maniac Jake, dumping stuff off his bookshelves, destroying his house looking for something.

Now we are seeing a different side of Jake. We are seeing the humbled Jake. Jake is making a choice that Jake has never made before. 

This is probably not the first time that Jake has knocked everything off his shelves looking for some objects that he couldn’t find. He went to that really quickly. But now we’re getting Jake to make the choices that he wouldn’t normally make. And you can see that the stakes are raising. 

Another thing is happening that’s really cool: a relationship is building where none existed before. Because now this is not just the scene about the stapler, this is the beginning of a relationship between Jake and that horrible neighbor, that is ultimately going to change Jake’s life forever. Maybe this is the beginning of a friendship. Maybe this is the beginning of a war. It doesn’t matter. The stakes are growing, because we made it hard, and then we made it harder. 

And notice, we still haven’t actually done any exposition for the audience. For all the audience knows, Jake might be looking for anything. They just know that Jake’s car won’t start. He’s looking for something. And now he is prostrating himself before this horrible neighbor who is going to torture him before finally Jake can win that car, or a ride, or a jumpstart, or whatever it takes for Jake to get to Staples.

(A ride would probably be best, because that would be hardest for Jake, and then we get to build more relationship between Jake and the next door neighbor). 

Do you see how we built stakes off of this random object? And this is so important. This is the difference between plot and structure. 


We often think that the stakes in our screenplay are growing out of our plot, but they are not. Our stakes are growing out of our structure. And our structure grows out of what your character wants, how they try to get it, what makes it hard, and what makes it harder. 

If you do these four steps, you are going to be 70% of the way to building stakes in your screenplay. 

STEP #1: Do you know what they want?
STEP #2: Are they taking active steps to get it?
STEP #3: Make it hard.
STEP #4: Make it harder.

STEP #5: To raise the stakes in your screenplay, connect to the emotional needs of your character.

There is one more layer to stakes that is at once more intuitive and more complicated.

Now at the studio, we teach some more advanced techniques for connecting to emotional needs and meditative techniques and hypnotic techniques, because a lot of us as people are disconnected from our emotional needs, we’re connected to the tangible things we want. 

We know we want to win an Academy Award, we know we want the big contract, we know we want the new car, we know we want the lover of our dreams, we know that we want the vacation… we know we want the staple remover! 

We know the things that we want. But we are often disconnected from the emotional needs underneath. 

This is especially important when writing movies and TV shows. 

In real life, there’s a real staple remover. In real life, if I’m in a car chase, it’s a real car chase. But in a movie, in a TV show, on some level, even though the audience is suspending disbelief, we know it’s not real

We know it’s fiction, it’s not a real $3 trillion bucks that we just burned. It’s not a real baby that we just shot at. It is not real bullets. It is not a real heist. 

That’s why we need the emotional need underneath.


To raise the stakes in our screenplays, we need to connect to the emotional need, because that is what the audience is really connecting to on the subconscious level. 


Most of us are never going to be in the situations our characters find themselves in. Most of us are never going to be Rocky trying to win the first fight. And most of us are never going to be Bertha trying to get the right snobs to show up for our dinner party at our giant mansion. 

That is not most of our lives. 

When we watch any show, or any movie, we’re not actually connecting to the tangible object that the character wants, we’re actually connecting to the emotional need underneath. We’re actually connecting to the core primal need that everybody shares. That’s what makes our writing universal.

At the end of the day, if Jake is searching for a staple remover just to remove staples, there is a limit to how much we are going to care about it.

But if Jake is searching for the staple remover because Jake needs justice, because people are always taking his staple remover, because things are always disappearing for his life, there’s going to be a whole other level of emotional charge to that journey. 

If Jake is searching for the staple remover because he needs validation, and he’s got to get his application in, there’s gonna be a whole different level of feeling to the scene that’s going to inflect every word he says and every action he takes. It is going to change who and how he is, and how he goes for his want. If it’s about respect, if it’s about connection, if it’s about love, if it’s about meaning, if it’s about transcendence, if it’s about safety

These are the things that actually tie us together as human beings. These are the things that give us connection. And these are the things that build empathy. 


You don’t have to tell people the emotional need to build stakes in your screenplay. Just like in life, we feel the emotional need as the character pursues what they want, especially if you feel it as you’re writing them. That’s where the empathy comes from. 

You can feel when somebody is emotionally connected to what they’re going for, versus when they are going through the motions. And you can feel the difference in stakes in your real life when the emotional need is active in you, the same way that you can feel the difference in a script when the emotional need is active. 

The emotional need is a complex subconscious thing that happens under the surface. 

If you want to get really good at learning how to deal with emotional needs in your writing and how to connect to emotional needs in your life, take the Write Your Screenplay Class, take The Master Class, those are places where we have the time to fully explore that in a safe way.  Because getting to your own emotional needs is really the first step of connecting to your characters emotional needs. 

Sometimes that’s about stripping back the layers between you and what’s actually going on under the surface. That’s about recognizing that your own tangible objects are also metaphors for the emotional needs underneath.

The tangible objects you and your characters pursue are metaphorical stand-ins that help you believe that when you achieve them the emotional need that is driving you will be met. 


The objects you’re pursuing are metaphors for something emotional that is going on within you. That is why you’re so driven. That’s why the stakes can feel so high in your life, even when it seems like nothing life threatening is happening. 

It’s not because you’re crazy. It’s because you’re human. This is how human psychology works. And that’s why it’s how character psychology works. That’s why emotional need is so inherently connected to stakes. 

You have probably at some point lost your mind on Verizon Wireless. You’re not losing your mind on Verizon Wireless because of the $9 discrepancy in your bill. You’re losing your mind on Verizon Wireless because of your need for respect! Or because of your need for justice

The Verizon Wireless bill is just a metaphor for the need underneath.

The same way it happens in life is how it happens in screenplays. We need to be connected to the emotional need, otherwise, all this stuff that we’re writing is just going to feel surfacey. And even if you’re doing all the technical elements, without the emotional need underneath, it’s going to feel artificial. It is going to feel false. It is going to feel disconnected. 


If you’re not connected to the emotional need, your audience is going to have a hard time connecting to the emotional need. And that means they’re going to have a hard time connecting to the stakes, no matter how good you are technically. 

All of writing requires two parts of our mind. There’s the conscious mind, which is what the first four steps are accessing: Do I know what they want? Are they taking steps to get it? Are they making it hard? Am I making it harder? 

Then there’s a subconscious mind, which is what the fifth step is accessing: Am I connected? Can I feel the need inside of them? 

If you want to get better at connecting to emotional needs, a simple way to start is just to observe people.

Notice when people are acting a little nuts, when your aunt is driving you crazy over something silly, when your friend is in a tizzy over something that seems so small, when somebody is driven with great passion for something that doesn’t even make sense to you.

When you see people acting a little nuts, whether it’s in a beautiful way or a horrible way, instead of being upset with them, ask yourself “what’s going on underneath?”

What emotional need are they trying to meet? Is it love? Is it comfort? Is it justice? Is it validation? Is it respect? Is it meaning? Is it transcendence? Is it safety? Is it connection?

What core universal need are they trying to meet? 

By observing emotional needs in others, it becomes easier to start to recognize emotional needs in yourself. And then, as you start to recognize them in yourself, it becomes easier to pass them on to your characters. 



STEP #1: Do you know what they want?
STEP #2: Are they taking active steps to get it?
STEP #3: Make it hard.
STEP #4: Make it harder.
STEP #5: Connect to the emotional need. 

If you are doing those five simple steps, you probably have high stakes in your screenplay, regardless of what plot is happening in your script. 


And just to prove that to you, let’s talk about The Gilded Age and how that series raises the stakes, with a bare minimum of what we’d normally consider high stakes situations. 

Let’s start with Bertha Russell.

#1: Does Julian Fellowes know what she wants? Yeah, you bet he does. Bertha Russell wants to be Mrs. Astor. 

How does she want to do it? She wants the right people to show up to her giant mansion that she has built in a part of town that she is not supposed to live in. She wants her children to marry the right people. And she wants her social standing to rise, to be accepted as a member of this society. 

That’s what she wants.

#2: Is she taking steps to get it? 

You bet she is! She’s taking steps at every moment, and she is willing to sacrifice pretty much anything to get the right people to show up for her dinner party. She is willing to do anything to get what she wants. And she is trying all the time.

Literally every episode is just another scheme of Bertha’s to try to get the right people to show up for some event at her house. 

#3. What’s the obstacle? 

The obstacle is that despite all of Bertha’s money, this is not something you can buy in this society. You can’t even buy theater tickets if you are not old money in this society. If you’re old money, you’re in, and if you’re new money, you are out, and there is no way up the ladder. Not even if you are as rich as Bertha. 

#4. What makes it harder? 

Well, she’s just built a giant mansion across the street from the most rigidly conservative old money person in the world, Aunt Agnes, who refuses to even step foot into her house. 

What makes it harder? Her daughter is desperate to get married, and she cannot come out into society until Bertha can get the right guests to show up for her party. 

What makes it harder? Her son wants to become an architect, which is an unacceptable job. And her husband, despite putting up initial resistance, is actually supporting it. 

What makes it harder?  Her husband is embroiled in a scandal. And though he is the perfect husband, and just a lovely robber baron (I’ll have to leave that discussion of how nice robber barons must have been based on their depiction in this series for another podcast, where I can get political) but she has a perfect husband who’s just a lovely, lovely, lovely robber baron. And they have a loving, wonderful relationship.

But as he is embroiled in this life-or-death scandal that could bring down his whole business, her obsession, even in the face of that, with status and rising in society is starting to put pressure on their perfect relationship. Even though they love and support each other, the stakes of rising in society are not as high for him as they are for her. And he’s not fully understanding why this is so important for her.

What makes it harder? Well, the young man across the street, Oscar, is wooing her daughter. And this seems like a great thing, because this is an opportunity to potentially marry her daughter to the right kind of guy, and move herself and her family up in society. Except there’s one problem, which is that Oscar is gay, and he’s really using her daughter as a beard. And her daughter is falling for it hook, line and sinker. And when she realizes that Oscar doesn’t really love her, it’s probably going to destroy her lovely little daughter’s life, even if it does raise their status in society. 

All these things are making it harder.  And there’s more! Her handmade is scheming, her butler does not know the English style of setting the silverware and the cups and the plates, and in order to get the English style she’s going to need to bring in the butler from across the street, which obviously won’t go very well with aunt Agnes. 

Her wonderful French chef turns out not to actually be from France, and when she fires him and tries to replace him, she ends up hiring a drunk, who’s not even able to provide the most important dinner.

All of these things are making it harder and harder and harder and harder and harder. 

#5.  Are we connected to the emotional need? 

You bet we are. 

Look, most of us don’t give a crap about the English style of setting silverware. Most of us don’t give a crap about a bunch of snobs showing up for a dinner party.

The reason we’re connected to Bertha is because we can feel her need for respect

And potentially we can also feel her need for justice

And that’s what allows us to root for her, and care for her. 

We’re not rooting for the right snobs to show up for a dinner party. We’re rooting for her to have respect and justice. 


Every time we watch Bertha, we’re connecting subconsciously to the emotional need, and that is where the stakes are coming from in The Gilded Age, even though the actual events seem incredibly low stakes.

Let’s do Marian. 

#1. What does she want? 

She wants Tom Raikes?

#2.  Is she taking steps to get him? 

Yeah, you bet she is.

She is sneaking out. She is arranging clandestine meetings. She is plotting to secretly elope. She is taking all these steps and more to get him. 

#3. What makes it hard? 

Well, she has come to New York with literally nothing and been taken in by her aunts, Aunt Ada and Aunt Agnes, and Aunt Agnes is never ever, ever, ever, ever going to approve a wedding to a man like Tom Raikes. A common lawyer! A working person! 

He is too far below her in class, and  pursuing this relationship is potentially going to cost Marian her relationship with Aunt Agnes, the person that she depends on for everything and the person who has been most kind to her and helped her most  in her moment of need.

Being with Tom Raikes is going to mean building fortitude in herself, standing up to her Aunt, becoming a stronger person. These are the things that make it hard. 

#4. What makes it harder? 

Even Aunt Ada isn’t fully on board for this (even though she could probably be swayed).

What makes it harder? Tom Raikes might not actually be the person that she thinks he is. In fact, it seems like he’s a player who is wooing every woman in New York. 

What makes it harder? After she has risked everything for him, he’s not even going to show up to elope with her. 

#5. Are we connected to the emotional need? 

Yeah, you bet we are. Her emotional need is love. It’s love that is making her stand up to Aunt Agnes. It’s the need for love. It is the belief that she is going to get love, that true loving relationship, from Tom Raikes that makes Marian grow and change and make all these big choices for herself in the script.

And even though she’s not going to actually get that emotional need from Tom, that’s what makes it so devastating. That where the stakes are coming from. 


We can apply the same 5 steps to identify the elements that raise the stakes with every character in The Gilded Age.

Let’s do Peggy.

#1: Do we know what Peggy wants?

Yes, we know what Peggy wants. Peggy wants her child back. And what’s interesting is, for most of the episodes, we, the audience, don’t even know what the thing she wants is! 

But Julian Fellowes knows.

#2: Is she is taking active steps to get it?

Yup. She’s arranging clandestine meetings with Tom. She is avoiding her family. She is putting up barriers between hereself and her employer to keep the secret. She is searching for the child. 

Peggy is taking action throughout the series to try to get what she wants, even though it’s a secret, and we don’t know what the want is. 

#3: What makes it hard?

What makes it hard is that her father literally stole this child from her and gave it away for adoption, and now she has no idea how she will ever find her child again.

#4. What makes it harder? 

What makes it harder is Tom is not able to track down the child.

What makes it harder is that her mom is trying to facilitate a reconnection with her father.

What makes it harder is that she cannot track down the child on her own. 

What makes it harder is that she’s going to eventually have to use her father to get to the child. And it’s not something her father’s willing to give.

What makes it harder is that she’s a black woman in New York in the gilded age. 

What makes it harder is her friend Marian doesn’t understand.

What makes it harder is that her employer, Aunt Agnes, has a very strict code of ethics. And she fears that if the scandal of what happened to her child ever came out, that she might lose her job. 

What makes it harder is that a servant has found out her secret and is about to spill the beans to Aunt Agnes. 

What makes it harder is that she’s going to have to come out to aunt Agnes herself with her secret. 

#5: Are we connected to the emotional need.

Peggy’s emotional need is for justice and for love. She needs justice for herself because that child was taken away from her. She needs justice for the child that deserves to be with its mother. And she wants love from that child and for that child. 

We’re connected to the emotional need. 


Notice that objectively, we would think the stakes over an abducted baby would be much higher than the stakes over a dinner party. But in The Gilded Age, we can actually feel the same level of stakes for both of these extremely different plot events. 

We can feel the same level of stakes because we know what the character wants. Because the character is trying to get it. Because the writer makes it hard, and then makes it harder. We’re connected to the emotional need. 

This is where stakes come from. 

And finally, to bring this to a philosophical level, if you have trouble finding stakes in your own life, you can use the same process.

If you’re having trouble rooting for yourself as a character, which is really what people are saying when they say “raise the stakes”– what they’re really saying is, “I’m having trouble rooting for this character, I’m having trouble caring about this character. I’m having trouble understanding what matters to this character, I’m having trouble feeling empathy for this character.”


If you’re having trouble finding empathy and connection for yourself, if you feel stuck in your life, if you feel like you can’t quite feel the stakes, that what you’re doing actually matters, see what happens if you follow the same steps.


#1. Do you know what you want? 

And if you don’t know what you want, well, don’t get stressed out about it. 

If you can’t figure out the big want, figure out a small one. Look around the room, find something small enough that you know you actually want it. It might just be a staple remover. Find something small enough that you can pursue it now.

#2. Are you taking active steps to get it. 

Are you just wanting it in your head? Or are you actually taking the steps you need to get what you want? 

#3.  That’s an interesting one, in this context! Make it hard. 

Now, I’m not trying to say that you should make things impossible for yourself. I’m not saying that you should self sabotage. Of course not. if it’s easy, and you want it, and it’s not going to hurt anybody, go for it! If the fruit is right there on the vine, please, enjoy it!

But if you want to feel a feeling of stakes in your life, if you want to feel a feeling of change in your life, you can’t only be seeking the low hanging fruit. 

Enjoy the low hanging fruit, but ask yourself, what would be a slightly bigger challenge? What would actually test me? What would actually push me out of my comfort zone? What would force me to make new choices that I haven’t made before? 

And you’ll notice, when you start to do that, that you start to root for yourself just like you do for your characters.

That you start to feel staks for yoursel. You start to feel empathy for yourself, and movement in yourself. That you actually start to find structure in your life. 

#3. Make it harder. 

We think in life that obstacles are the bad things that get in our way, and that if we only had what we want, we would have meaning, or love or comfort or justice or whatever the real emotional need is.

But the opposite is actually true. 

It is not the object– it is not the staple remover– that gives you justice. It is the pursuit of the object, the pursuit of the staple remover, that meets (or sometimes doesn’t meet) the emotional need.

It is the pursuit of the object, whatever it is, and the wrestling with obstacles, that actually reveals who you really are to yourself, and gives meaning and stakes to your life. 

Make it hard, and then ask yourself, “what would be a fun way to do this? What would be a more challenging way to do this? What would be a way that would test me a little bit more? What would be a way to do this that would give it a little twist, that made it uniquely me?”

And you’ll find, when you add that little layer of extra challenge for yourself, whether it’s in your writing, or in your personal life, that suddenly you start to discover wonderful things along the journey that you’ve never found before. That you start to experience aspects of yourself that you didn’t know were there. That you stop making the choices that you would have expected yourself to make, and start making new choices that break you out of the limits of who you believe yourself to be. 

#5. Connect to the emotional need. 

When you’re connected to your emotional need, you can connect to a zen state, where even as you’re pursuing the tangible object, you realize that the endpoint is not actually what really matters. What actually matters is the emotional need underneath.

Once you realize that every object– whether it’s a staple remover, or your father’s love– that every object that we are pursuing is really just a metaphor for an emotional need underneath and once we get in touch with that emotional need underneath, we can get super creative about how those emotional needs get met, rather than being stuck on the same objects for our entire life.

If you’re enjoying what you’re seeing here, like and follow

And if you want to study with me then check out Thursday Night Writes. It is free! Every Thursday night at

*Edited for length and clarity 

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