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?
Internal conflict tends to interest me the most. There’s something about the battle between the heart and mind that keeps me turning the pages more than anything else. I love “should I” or “shouldn’t I” scenarios that have long-term affects.
I believe life is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, so my favorite scenario is when a life is at stake. Whether literary fiction or a thriller, this will almost always keep my attention.
Fiction can teach us so much about life and the decisions we make. When we see a character’s actions and the consequences, we are reminded of the importance our lives and our decisions have on those around us.
Great post, Tamela. I love the cry me a river comment. Part of our problem as authors is that we might know that the stakes are immense, but if that only unfolds over 300 pages, an agent/editor/reader will never get there. How does one establish stakes early in without being melodramatic? Good question.
In King’s new novel The Institute, he starts off so gently that I found myself wondering whether this was his writing, but soon enough the stakes are introduced, and the hook is set. The stakes escalate. With him, enough readers have sufficient patience to trust that Good Stuff is coming. We lesser mortals cannot count on such perseverance. Thanks.
Damon J. Gray
Good morning, Tamela.
The most intriguing conflict, for me, is internal conflict – a struggle within one’s own mind, perhaps even a lack of surety for what is real or not real, the way Peeta Mellark wrestled with his mind in the Hunger Games.
As for the stakes, it has to be engaging as you noted, but it has to be believable at the same time, else I simply roll my eyes and set the book aside. And believably can be built as small morsels. While I cannot swallow X, I can handle A, and having accepted A, in the next chapter, I can handle B. Eventually, the believability of X is not so far fetched.
I make no apologies for this, though I probably should…
My neighbour was a man of greed,
saying, “Mess with us, and die!”
My cows got into his field of weed,
and then the stakes were high.
They came with guns and chopping knives,
they came with a hostile aura;
their faces were paean to wasted lives,
and reason said “Sayonara!”
But they liked their product, understand,
and its use their violence vetoes,
for in the grasp of each free hand
was a large bag of Doritos.
So I got out my laptop, suggested a toke,
and we watched Cheech and Chong in “Up In Smoke”.
I live two hours north of you. We should get together. Although I confess to not being as much fun as your neighbors.
I love all sorts of conflict. If I had to choose, it would be Internal conflict. I’m a sucker for when life is any life is at stake; whether it’s one person or every soul in the entire galaxy. From reading fiction, I’ve learned that we can all relate at some level to others. We often get behind our favorite characters and want to cheer them on. We want the best for them, and to see them achieve. If it’s an experience we’re unfamiliar with, maybe we can learn how to deal with conflict (“active shooter”, “tornado”, or “snotty in-laws”) in an entertaining and more personal way.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
HIghly informative, Tamela! Recently my favorite has been Carrie Stuart Parks’ Gwen Marcey series. Gwen is a forensic artist who recently completed cancer treatment but still deals with the physical “leftovers” of it. Her high-profile husband divorced her during her illness and they have joint custody of their teenage daughter. Her stakes are always solving a crime before the perpetrator can strike again and holding onto her custody and relationship with her daughter. Her conflicts always include her health, her ex-husband, and her tenuous hold on employment. For me, those predictable elements anchor the books like a scaffold, then the plots built on it with additional stakes and conflicts are riveting and the settings and characters are fascinating. The fourth book in the series, Portrait of Vengeance, won the Carol, Inspy, Wright, and Maxwell awards, so lots of other readers must think so, too.
Tamela Hancock Murray
I love all the recommendations this group has given, and your insights. Thank you all so very much! You make writing this blog a great experience!
Great questions and great posts. As always!
I love layered risks and conflicts. Since I am into romance AND crime.. things like (OK these are mine…)
How to Steal a Romance:
1. If I don’t uncover the truth, no one will… but I may go to prison for my own hidden crimes!
2. I hate everyone. Especially cops. This one REALLY bugs me and I don’t understand why hasn’t tossed me into jail…
3. If I become a Christian, I’ll be a Stepford robot… if I don’t… what will happen to me? Not real crazy about fire.
4. If I fall in love, it may be my life’s end, but why, why, why do I adore the obviously dirty cop?
5. Why did God make me like this? I HATE GOD.
6. Why did God bring me this man to irritate me in every way? I may just kinda Love God…
I’m not crazy about billionaire fellas but I have one I like and the MC is skeptical:
Working title: Alex and the Very Dead Doxy
1. I gotta murder to solve! I haven’t a clue as to what I am doing! If I lose this the murderer goes free and will kill again.
2. Who is this big city cop who wants to work for a deputy? For next to nothing. I don’t trust him.
3. God hates me. I have not been a Christian. Not dad’s favorite kid.
4. You’ve got to be kidding me! I just hired a … BIBLE THUMPER? and he’s the only one who’s applied for the job. Dagnabit.
5. Where is all this money coming from? Vehicles, supplies? ANONYMOUS? Who is trying to buy me off?
6. He’s getting on my nerves. Talks about the Bible. Keeps telling me he’s a billionaire. Ridiculous.
Glass Slipper (noir)
1. If I don’t solve this murder spree, a serial killer will go free. Forensics is everything.
2. I hate women. I want my booze. Why did I become a Christian? I can’t have what I want!
4. A new lab tech? NO NO NO. First sight, I can’t stand her. She’s obnoxious.
5. Why is God tempting me? I even prayed for patience! And she tossed my empty booze bottles?
6. I think she’s better than me as a medical examiner… Dear God, why is she being a temptress and why is she so obnoxious?