Conflicts vs Stakes
About Writing | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage
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No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, there will be no novel without trouble. Even love stories and kids’ books have conflict. And every great story begins with conflict. A conflict can be big and noisy like a gunfight or it can be quiet, like a person who wants two opposing things and can’t decide, but make sure it’s there. Conflict must exist in every scene. And generally, but not always, conflicts are short-lived like the two examples here.
Stakes, on the other hand, are often derived from conflict. It may not be a single conflict; it could be a combination of several conflicts that create a character’s stakes. They are more primal and long lasting that conflicts. Stakes are weaved through the fabric of your novel. A plot that hinges on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of a loved one, fear of death, revenge, love, etc. will connect with readers at a basic level because everyone “gets” those things. Stakes have to matter to your characters and, by the end, they have to matter more than anything else in the world.
Your audience has to know the stakes, and they have to know them sooner rather than later. The longer the reader goes without knowing the stakes, the more lost they feel in the storyline and its characters’ motivations. Why do they struggle? Why take the journey? That’s because stakes are key and supply all of the reasons why. While you don’t need to include stakes in the first page of a novel, make the reader understand as soon as possible why the story is being told. The why in this case is based heavily on the stakes.
It’s crucial the reader knows what is to be gained or lost during the battle, the romance, the journey, or whatever the essential theme. Literally, what is at stake? Is it life or death? Love? Money? A precious piece of land? Loyalty of an old friend? A wish? A curse? The annihilation of the whole world? Galaxy? Universe?
As I’ve mentioned before, characters are the engine that drives any story, and if they are not invested in stakes, the story becomes flat and artificial. Both conflicts and stakes must be personal. And as a result, conflicts and stakes may be specific and different for each character. Stakes mean more to us as an audience when the stakes mean more to the character.
There are three kinds of stakes for characters:
PERSONAL STAKES - a protagonist’s personal stakes are not what motivates her or him. Personal stakes are more than just what a hero(ine) wants to do. Personal stakes illustrate the reason this goal or that action must be performed to end matters in a profound and personal sense. And the more it matters to your hero(ine), the more it will matter to your readers, too.
ULTIMATE STAKES - when life tests us to the utmost, our motives grow exponentially greater. Our deepest convictions rise close to the surface. We become more determined than ever to make a difference, to persist, to overcome all problems and obstacles. At the moment of ultimate testing, we summon our deepest beliefs and swear that nothing will stop us. If the hero(ine) of your novel also must be tested to the physical and mental limits of his or her convictions, consider adding additional obstacles to complicate the path.
PUBLIC STAKES – Public stakes not only affect the main character(s) but the community, the nation, the world, the universe as well. Things can go wrong in so many ways with public stakes. The reader sometimes thinks, it can’t get any worse than this. But it can get much worse. That is the essence of raising the outward, or public, stakes; making things worse for the populace in general, showing us that there is more to lose, promising even bigger disasters will happen if the hero(ine) doesn’t make matters come out okay. The train will derail and hundreds of people will die. The Government Embassy will burn. Tatooine will explode. The universe will collapse on itself.
As your storyline progresses, stakes can and maybe should get more complex and entangled. Raising the stakes is easier in thrillers, mysteries, action-adventure, science fiction and fantasy stories. The action in such novels usually has significance for more than just the characters involved, so it can easily expand. But what about sagas, coming-of-age stories, romances and family dramas? Yeah, it’s the same. Some examples might be good here. Coming of age novels can deal with racism, sexual situations, and so on. With romance, throw a third or fourth person in the mix; someone will feel they are bound to lose at love. Family drama may deal with the death of a relative or an unexpected arrest and their effects on members of the family.
In the end, a novel can have personal stakes where a main character struggles with his own sanity, as in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. A main character can be tested to the limits of his own existence, as in Jack London’s To Build A Fire. And worlds are jeopardized as in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Obviously, your novel can have a combination of these stakes.