Chapter 5: Conflict, Stakes and Rising Action

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Viewing Assignment: The Avengers (and Avengers: Age of Ultron (kind of...you don't really have to watch that one.))


Let's get philosophical for a moment.

What are the things that really matter in life? Sure, big answers pop in sometimes, like world peace or universal harmony. But those answers are the ones that also slip easily out of our minds. When we really dig into the question, personal answers are the ones that stick in our minds: friends, family, relationships, health, eating your favorite pizza every now and then, wearing shoes that feel good, doing what you love...things like that. It's things that are actually important to you, to your life that are the most fundamental way to answer that question.

Now let's dive in a little deeper...which of the things you listed would you fight for, struggle to keep if someone wanted to take them from you? Did some things drop off the list? I bet you would fight for your life, or for the people you love. But maybe a few items didn't seem as important. Did the comfy shoes stay on the list? Me, I love fresh chocolate chip cookies, but if someone wants the last one on the plate, I'm not going to throw down over it. They can have the cookie.

With these questions asked it's time to move our pondering back to the task at hand. How do we use this philosophical wisdom in our writing? When we put these things that we would or would not fight for into story terms, they are basically what is at stake for our characters. If it's the cookie that your protagonist can let go of when someone else wants it, then the stakes are low, but if that same villain is threatening to take your character's life by dropping her off a cliff, then the stakes are high.

And...it's this struggle between the two characters that is the conflict in your story. And conflict is one of the best ways to keep your readers interested in the story. Conflict gets them addicted. If I just let you have the cookie, no one is going to read about it. But if we fight over it (especially on top of a mountain)...the readers will soon NEED to know who gets the cookie and who goes over the cliff.

Before we get into more of how stakes and conflict can help your writing, let's ponder a few more deep thoughts. Imagine a story with two characters. And...they want the same thing. You can make the stakes anything you like, big or small, the point to the exercise is simply that they both have the same goal. Now, and here's the crazy part...the protagonist and antagonist in this story actually agree on how to get that goal. So, they work together and achieve it. How does this story work out in the end?

Here's a word for you...boring! A number of people cooperating to achieve a goal is what we aim for in real life when we want to get things done. But that's not why we read stories!

In this case it doesn't matter what the stakes are. It could be our aforementioned cookie, or maybe the characters are working together to save the world from giant monsters, or the protagonist and antagonist might be a team of matchmakers finding true love for people. Any kind of stakes are wasted in this situation. If your two characters want that same goal and work together, then you've got a perfect recipe for a boring story that people will snooze through.

But...if your two characters disagree, if they want the same goal but disagree on how to get it, or especially on who should win it...then you've got real conflict; conflict that matters. And this kind of conflict makes the world of stories go 'round.

So, let's reverse the situation. If you've decided that your two characters are going to be in conflict, but they are struggling for something that you yourself wouldn't put much effort into getting...something like struggling over a good parking space or who is in line next at the coffee shop, then things still don't work and you are guaranteed to have more story troubles. Even if you have brilliant characters who clash with each other in fun and inventive ways, if the stakes in your story are low, then readers will quickly lose interest. To keep your readers involved, you have to make the stakes big, and that leaves you only a few main options.

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