Friday, December 13, 2013

The One-Two Punch: Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Here are Seven Ways to Raise the Stakes in Your Novel:

1. Have a consequence

Actions need consequences for them to matter, and if they don't matter, there are no stakes. If nothing changes for the character making the choice, why bother having her make it? There are wrong choices in fiction, and make sure your characters are faced with them as often as possible.

2. Have something go wrong

Characters assume their plan will unfold in a certain way, and when things don't go as expected, the dangers--and the risks--get higher. Anything might happen now that the plan has gone off the rails. Look for places where mistakes can be made and things can fail.

3. Make it personal

Bad things happening to faceless people don't tug at the heartstrings the same as something bad happening to someone we care about. This is why the teenage boy eaten by a shark gets way more news coverage than the thousands of teens who die from disease every day. Let bad things happen to the characters readers know and care about.

(More on making it personal here)

4. Demand a sacrifice

Make sure one of those bad things is a sacrifice. Having to give up something that matters a great deal shows how much is at stake for a character and what she's willing to risk to succeed. Take away what matters most and force her to go get it.

5. Make connections

Bad choices made early on can trigger catastrophic problems later in the story. Connect the problems and events so when that disaster does happen, both the reader and the character knows it's due to a mistake made long before. Knowing that events might have turned out differently makes every action mean more, and seeing how the story ties together makes the reader worry about even the small actions or choices.

6. Start small, get bigger

If the protagonist's life is at stake on page one, there's no room to raise the stakes on page five, let alone the climax. Start off with small stakes that can be escalated throughout the novel, so things are constantly getting worse. Even better, look for problems that will snowball, so the small stake in the opening scene eventually turns into the dire stake at the end of the book.

(More on when to escalating stakes here)

7. Mention the risks

This might seem simple, but tell readers what's at stake so they know. Sometimes it's not obvious, and the reasons why a character is doing what she's doing doesn't make sense. Keeping it secret also doesn't provide any opportunities to create anticipation, because if a reader knows what might go wrong, she can worry about that at every turn. Let your characters discuss or consider the risks--even if you never plan to have them happen. It's the fear of what could happen that helps raise the stakes.

Conflict and stakes are a strong combination for keeping readers reading. Novels with strong conflicts and high stakes are ones that are hard to put down. Make the most of every scene by tightening every conflict and raising every stake you can.

What's at stake in some of your favorite books? Or in your WIP? 

Find out more about conflict, stakes, and tension in my book, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).

With in-depth analysis and easy-to-understand examples, Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) teaches you what conflict really is, discusses the various aspects of conflict, and reveals why common advice on creating conflict doesn't always work. It shows you how to develop and create conflict in your novel and explores aspects that affect conflict, as well as clarifying the misconceptions that confuse and frustrate so many writers.

This book will help you:
  • Understand what conflict means and how to use it
  • Tell the difference between external and internal conflicts
  • See why conflict isn't a "one size fits all" solution
  • Determine the type of conflict your story needs
  • Fix lackluster scenes holding your writing back

Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how conflict works, so you can develop it in whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of what conflict means and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.

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  1. Let's see...The Healer Wars have the safety of the people of Geveg and their healer population at stake. On a more personal level, Nya's sister is at stake. "The Thief" has the safety of Gen's home kingdom at stake. The Harry Potter series has the safety and peace of the wizarding world at stake.

    My WIP...let's see. Grand-scale, peace and standards of living of the displaced faery population. Small-scale, the redemption of my MC.

    1. Aw, thanks! I like, a displaced people and redemption. Both sound like fun.

  2. HI Janice
    Good list, thanks
    I think your second point is particularly useful. It's easy to plot out a story, triggered by a powerful catalyst, but then have the characters follow their pre-planned steps and succeed in solving the conflict. But throwing mistakes/bad choices/differences in personality etc into the mix gives the story that human element, and a touch of realism often missing (certainly from my genres of fantasy and scifi.
    In my latest WIP, first draft just finished, the high stakes were choosing love or power, combined with the fear of that power, and the problems it had already caused in the previous book. And of course, everything that could go wrong, did :)

    1. It's those mistakes that make it both fun and worth reading about. The struggle to succeed. Oooo power struggles. Being afraid of what you want is a great conflict. That sounds like fun!

  3. Oy. I need to remember this ALL the time. It doesn't come naturally to me!

    1. I think that's common. It's tough for a lot of writers to "be mean" to their characters, and conflict/tension is often difficult for them. But luckily, it's something we can add during the second draft if we need too.

  4. Hi!

    Fab post. I really enjoyed it. You are so right about the conflicts and stakes all wrapped in a series of set-ups and reveals. I write romantic comedy and as such,my stories tend to be character driven. So, of course most of the conflicts and stakes have to be on an emotional level.

    In my latest WIP the heroine is walking on air cocooned in a fluffy cloud of pure bliss, thinking now the hero has proposed, life can't get any better. Then the wedding plans begin and she'd completely unprepared for the utter chaos and major conflicts! All her internal conflicts come sailing back and her life turns into one big crazy monster.

    I like the contrast of: all is so perfect ... until... it isn't :D

    1. Love that. Things are so perfect until they aren't. That's worthy of a post-it on a monitor. (grin)

      The external "fighty" conflicts are often easier to write, but the emotional ones are usually more fun and more satisfying. and with romantic comedies, I bet you get to play with some funny situations. I don't have the knack for those, but I do love them.

  5. Hey there Janice! Didn't know you had a book on writing coming it out next month! What great news! Can't wait to read it.

    1. I do! I've been working on it forever, and it's in the final stages now. The goal is to have several come out next year, so fingers crossed. Lots of fun things coming in the 2014 on the blog.

  6. I like making my characters sacrifice something important to achieve a goal or solve a problem. Great list here. Bookmarked for reference. :)

    1. Thanks! I love sacrifices, too. Anything that really rips a character apart and forces them to really look at what's inside. Fun!