Recently, an author asked me about stakes versus conflict in a novel, and so I thought this blog post might be beneficial.
“Stakes” means what is at risk, what will happen, or what will be lost if the character doesn’t meet certain goals. Stakes are presented to make the reader care about the protagonist meeting a major goal. If stakes are low, it’s hard to maintain reader interest.
If Hector loses his job, he will have to move twenty miles away and work at a different job.
If the medicine for a head cold doesn’t make it into town today, it will arrive in plenty of time tomorrow.
If Griselda doesn’t get an engagement ring tonight from Troy, she’s fine with marrying Ron, who just proposed to her last night.
Who cares, right? I’ve literally stopped reading many a novel when the stakes weren’t high enough for me to care. Don’t let this happen to your readers!
When the stakes are high, the reader becomes engaged. For example:
If Joyner doesn’t find a cure for a mysterious pox infecting his town, everyone could die.
If Mary doesn’t agree to be a drug mule, her abusive ex will kill their daughter.
If Nadine doesn’t solve a murder, the killer will strike again within 24 hours.
If Bix can’t overcome the smear campaign his rival has spread against Bix and convince Paisley that he truly loves her, not only will his heart be shattered, but his playboy brother-in-law will ruin the family business.
Clearly, in each scenario, the protagonist must meet a defined goal or the consequences will be dire. The author hopes the reader will say, “What!? I want to read that book and see how that turns out.”
“Conflict” is what keeps the protagonist from meeting a goal. Would you like to read either of these books?
Jane works for a congressman that her in-laws don’t care for and they like to argue about it. She wishes for a better relationship. They live across the country so she sees them once a year.
Reginald just bought a private jet but the air traffic controllers have gone on strike, meaning he will have to delay his vacation in Paris.
Many readers can relate to annoying in-laws; and while Jane may dread their annual visit, the in-laws don’t plan any real harm to her. So a relatable – even sympathetic – character still needs enough conflict to engage the reader for 300 pages.
As for Reginald, cry me a river, right? Most people wish they had this type of conflict.
True conflict provides obstacles to keep the protagonist from reaching the set goal. For instance:
Situational: Belinda and Brad adore one another, but they are from two different worlds.
People: Cinderella loves Prince Charming, but her stepfamily tries to keep them apart.
Environmental: Janice must rescue nursing-home residents in the midst of a hurricane.
Internal: Haydon doesn’t know why she keeps choosing losers as romantic partners.
Ideally, the character experiences both internal and external conflict. And ideally, the main characters have obstacle after obstacle after obstacle thrown at them to create the conflict that keeps them from reaching their goals. Your goal as a writer is to keep the reader guessing – and reading.
What is your favorite type of conflict to read about?
What is your favorite high stake to read about?
What have you learned from reading fiction as far as dealing with life’s problems and conflicts?