Day 5: Conflict and Stakes

Conflict is one of the fundamental elements of story: Your protagonist wants something and someone (or something) is preventing her from getting it. Therein lies the conflict. For your story to be successful, you must be clear about the conflict that motivates your story.

The conflict is the central tension that will carry your story from beginning to end. As the plot unfolds, every scene must contribute to the trajectory that moves from the conflict to its resolution at the end of the story.

According to Karen Weisner, “Without conflict, you don’t have a story.”

Looking at one of our premise examples from yesterday, we see how conflict drives one iconic story:

“Restless farm boy Luke Skywalker wants nothing more than to leave home and become a starfighter pilot, so he can live up to his mysterious father. But when his aunt and uncle are murdered after purchasing renegade droids, Luke must free the droids’ beautiful owner and discover a way to stop the evil Empire and its apocalyptic Death Star. (Star Wars: A New Hope directed by George Lucas.)” (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Writer’s Digest)

There are three varieties of conflict that fuel narrative: external, internal, and inherent. It is often the more obvious external conflict that drives the plot, but internal conflict, which focuses on the protagonist’s interior life is vital too. The sweet-spot is achieved when an author can interweave the internal and external. As Karen Weisner puts it, “a character’s internal conflicts will create an agonizing tug-of-war with the plot conflicts. He has to make tough choices that come down to whether or not he should face, act on, and solve the problem.”

Inherent conflict often arises from setting. Think Lord of the FliesAll Quiet on the Western Front, or Jurassic Park. But as fraught with tension and conflict as those settings are, we still don’t have story until a character with a goal is introduced and her path to achieving that goal is obstructed.

Stakes

Closely related to conflict are the stakes. What is at risk for the character and what does that mean to her?

K.M. Weiland, in her excellent book Structuring Your Novel Workbook, poses several questions to help you define and escalate your novel’s stakes:

  • What does the protagonist care about most in the world?
  • How can you illustrate (show) your protagonist’s devotion to what he values?
  • In the First Act, how can you illustrate the antagonist’s threat to (or potential to threaten) what your protagonist values?

The key to creating good stakes is to ensure that they are meaningful. Here’s a good litmus test for assessing your stakes, courtesy of Donald Maass. Imagine someone asked you: “Hold on, your protagonist wants to [insert goal here], but let me ask you this, if he is not successful, so what?” How do you respond? If your answer is not compelling enough, then escalate the stakes.

Even when a life is at stake, that alone might not be good enough. First of all, as immortals we all the existential dilemma of knowing that we are going to die. The bigger question becomes how are we going to live. But if the threat of death is your primary stake, make sure that the life in question has meaning. What else is at stake if this life is lost? Do we as readers feel personally connected to that life? Do we feel empathy for that character? To the extent that we do, the stakes will be raised.

The time to define your story’s conflict and initial stakes is now. Go back to your premise and ensure that you’ve identified a compelling conflict to fuel your plot. If you haven’t then go back to the drawing board until you’ve found the beating heart of your story. Then ask yourself the suggested questions under the stakes section.

What’s the main conflict in your story? Share in the comments.

Resources:

Maass, Donald; Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel (p. 60). F+W Media. Kindle Edition

Weiland, K.M. Structuring Your Novel Workbook.

Weisner, Karen S. Crafting Novels & Short Stories: Everything You Need to Know to Write Great Fiction (Creative Writing Essentials). F+W Media, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Writer’s Digest. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing.

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