Wednesday, March 20, 2024

What “Burnt” Can Teach Us About Conflict and Stakes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The whole point of creating conflict and stakes is to use them.

My husband and I are big fans of both cooking shows and movies about restaurants, so we were excited to see Burnt. While it let us down as a movie, it did provide a great example on why conflict and stakes are vital to a story. 

Even better, it gave me a wonderful example of why a novel that is well written, has a solid idea, and all the right pieces, might keep getting rejected.

Because Burnt is technically well done. It has an amazing cast, great actors and acting, good production values, strong writing, solid bones in the story—what it lacks are the fundamental elements of good storytelling.

And it's really, really hard for good writing to overcome a bad story.

Bad stories can ruin an otherwise good novel (or movie). They offer us characters we think we want to hang out with, but then they turn out to be jerks. They dangle puzzles we need to see solved, but then the solution is ridiculous or so farfetched no one ever could have figured them out. They give is a delightful setting to explore, but when we get close, we realize it's all made of cardboard.

If you happen to have a manuscript that’s getting “it’s well written, but…” type rejections, you might find some reasons why here—and some clues on how to fix it. 

The problems I had with Burnt... (This contains spoilers for the entire movie)

It Was Predictable

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is a chef who destroyed his career with drugs and diva behavior. He cleans up and returns to London to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant and gaining three Michelin stars.

That’s the movie. You no longer need to see it, because it unfolds exactly as that summary says. There are no surprises, twists, turns, or even stumbles off the clear Point A to Point B plot.

If the entire plot can be summarized in one or two sentences, that’s a red flag there are no surprises in that plot

This is different from being able to summarize the conflict in one or two sentences. That’s a good thing. Be wary of a plot that’s a series of predictable steps to getting what the protagonist wants.

(Here’s more with An Unpredictable (and Fun) Trick to Keep Your Plots Unpredictable)

It Has No Conflict

Adam has all the makings of a wonderful character with past problems hurting his future—he’s a talented chef with a rough past who threw it all away and is desperate to regain what he lost. He burned bridges and ruined relationships, and pretty much did everything he could to ensure he’d never work as a chef again. The struggle for redemption is right there, rife with a ton of inherent conflict.


None of his past matters. Nothing he did then has any ramifications on what he wants to do now.

There’s no antagonist. No one is standing in his way of getting his stars. The only obstacle he faces is that he has to randomly wait for the Michelin people to show up.

The potential for conflict is there:
  • A sous chef he wants to hire doesn’t want to work for him
  • He needs a past colleague he screwed over to work with him again
  • He has no money to start his restaurant and his reputation makes him a bad risk
  • His own personal failings as a human being

Seems like great problems to overcome, right? But nothing is actually a problem, because...
  • He speaks to the restaurant owners and the sous chef gets fired so she can work for him. And she does. And stays, even though he treats her like dirt.
  • The colleague comes to work for him “no hard feelings” (more on this later)
  • His old boss vouches for him, and as long as he takes a drug test every week and goes to a therapist, he’ll back the restaurant.
  • Being a horrible human being is overlooked by everyone because “he’s so talented.”

Adam is a Gary Stu character for sure. What Adam wants, Adam gets, no problems whatsoever. He doesn’t have to struggle to overcome anything at all. His “flaws” don’t hurt him even though they should. He’s actually admired for being a royal jerk.

(Here’s more with 5 Ways to Fix Too-Perfect Characters)

There’s a hint of potential conflict at the end of act two where the Michelin people (who dine in secret) come to the restaurant, and the colleague sabotages Adam (just like Adam did to him). Adam has a huge meltdown, he thinks he’s going to get a bad review, let alone that third star, and goes on a bender. Classic Dark Moment. Even though there’s been no conflict yet, there’s hope that now, things will turn against Adam and he’ll have to struggle to finally win.

Conflict makes a story. Without conflict, there is no story, no matter how good everything else is. 

Stories are about characters struggling to achieve goals. If there’s no struggle, there’s no story. And when you build fabulous inherent conflict into your story and then don't use it... [cue me banging my head against something hard]. 

(Here’s more with Building Your Core: Internal and External Core Conflicts)

It Has No Stakes

Adam’s meltdown should have been a major deal. It should have been the end of him, the rock bottom he might not be able to climb back from. Adam has to take a drug test every week and talk to the therapist to get his loan and keep his restaurant open. It’s made very clear that if he screws up, he’s out.

And he screws up big time.

And nothing happens because of it.

Yeah, let me repeat that... NOTHING HAPPENS when he does the one thing stated that would ruin his chances of success. 

He doesn’t get tested, he doesn’t get into any trouble for falling off the wagon. His therapist never even finds out. The only stated stakes in the entire movie were fake, as they never held him accountable for anything. Had that whole aspect not been in the movie at all, it would not have changed anything.

In fact, it even turns out that the diners they all thought were Michelin people were just regular diners. The colleague who sabotaged him didn’t do Adam any harm at all (another fake conflict). So there Adam is, hungover and feeling crappy, when the real Michelin people show up and he has to serve them.

Which he does and gets his star. Easy peasy.

His only obstacle is that he’s hungover after his rough night of drugs and alcohol. Gee, it’s a good thing he has an entire staff of highly trained chefs to make the meal under his guidance.

At the core, the real problem lies in the premise:

Adam sets out to get his third Michelin star.

What happens if he fails to get his star?

He feels bad and has to keep trying.

That’s it. Nothing happens to him, he doesn’t lose his restaurant, his reputation is already ruined so he doesn’t even lose that. He still has his well-reviewed and always packed restaurant where he’s doing what he loves.

So in essence, here’s the plot of the movie:

Adam: I want someone else to back me to open a restaurant so I can get three coveted Michelin stars.

Viewers: What’s in the way of you doing that?

Adam: Nothing.

Viewers: What happens if you fail?

Adam: Nothing.

Viewers: Then why are we watching this?

Adam: I’m Bradley Copper!

Sure, I’m a fan of Bradley Cooper, but I need more than that to enjoy a movie.

This is particularly sad because the tagline for this movie is “Never underestimate a man with everything to lose.” Yet he has nothing at risk, ever. Even if he loses, so what? He starts over and tries again, since it’s obviously easy for him to start a fabulous restaurant on a whim.

If there’s nothing to win or lose, what happens doesn’t matter. And when you have stakes, make sure the consequences are real and actually happen if the protagonist fails.

(Here’s more on getting to the heart of your story)

It Has an Unlikable Protagonist

Some movies can overcome a lot of these problems if the characters are awesome and we just love hanging out with them.

Problem here, is that Adam is an arrogant, rude, selfish, jerk. There’s not a single redeeming quality about him. He’s mean to everyone around him, takes what he wants when he wants it, and even though they tried to create a romance subplot with the sous chef to show Adam’s “softer side” it doesn’t work. He still makes the poor woman work on her daughter’s birthday. 

The token, “after I get everything I want I’m a little nicer and more human” at the end doesn’t make up for everything that comes before it. Or feel real, because he doesn’t learn or earn any of it. He just decides he wants it and he gets it.

As a viewer (or reader), why do I care if this horrible person gets his dream? I don’t, which is why the movie was a letdown.

Unlikable characters can work, but only if there’s something compelling about them, or there’s a sense of redemption for them. 

Horrible people who get everything they want with no effort just annoys readers. Nobody likes those people.

(Here’s more with 10 Signs of a Great Protagonist)

It’s always a shame when a story with everything going for it falls flat, especially when a few minor tweaks would have made all the difference. If Burnt had had a strong conflict and real stakes, it would have been a terrific movie. But at least we can all benefit from its mistakes.

If you’re concerned about your novel, ask yourself: Do you have a protagonist struggling to get something, or just a story that shows them getting something?

If it’s all about the getting and not the struggle, you’re probably setting yourself up to get burned.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take each of the above problems and compare them against your story. Is your plot predictable? Are there surprises or does it unfold exactly as expected. What are the conflicts? Do those conflicts actually cause the protagonist to struggle? What are the stakes? Are there consequences for failing? Do they happen? Is your protagonist likable or at least compelling? Do they have at least one redeemable quality? If you discover your story might need a little more work, use these questions to guide your brainstorming on how to strengthen the novel.

Did you see Burnt? What did you think? What other examples of these issues have you seen or read?

*Originally published February 2016. Last update March 2024.

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 ShifterBlue 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. I haven't seen Burnt but it seems his kind of character is more acceptable these days, not just in movies but some commercially successful books.

    1. I've been seeing that as well. I blame House actually. It seems like it started when that show became popular.

  2. Excellent assessment. I haven't seen Burnt, but I've heard others who did complain about it. You've given me a lot to think about for my WIP. Stakes are so crucial to keep a reader invested in the story. The lack of stakes was the critical issue with my story. Though I had agents interested in reading the whole thing, they bailed at the lack of high stakes. So now I'm rewriting the book.

    1. Try looking at how the problem can be personal and life-changing for your protagonist. Often, the stakes are there if we dig and the story doesn't have to change much at all. You might only need to tweak the protagonist a little to make it all work with little rewriting.

  3. Sounds awful, but instructive. And it does sound like it was meant to be a hollow but brilliantly-executed story, but missed the execution.

    Jerk characters do bother me. In real life making the hard, considerate choices works, but often too slowly to be enough fun for a story. Meanwhile we see or hear about people who tear around putting themselves first, and it seems to work for them, at least from a distance... So they make movies about one who might have a moment of comeuppance, and then instead gets to stay in jerk mode all story. Sorry, Hollywood, I *don't* admire divas like that.

    1. I think we were supposed to care about Adam because he "was awesome" but we were never given any reason besides that. I'd bet the writer knew why he was worthy of the story, but it never made it to the page (or screen).

      Totally with you on the jerk characters. They can be jerks, but give them something redeemable as well.

  4. I was going to rent this because...Bradley Cooper! But I think I'll pass now. Thanks for saving me the money and giving me some food for thought. (bad pun so sorry.)

  5. I've been editing my current project to put in more and better conflict, so that section resonates with me right now. Thanks!

    1. Glad it helped! Good luck with your editing.

  6. 100% Janice! I saw Burnt many years ago and what that memory evokes in me is the immediate unpleasant sense of the MC's constant raging. Maybe you should be doing movie reviews (after you get your writing done of course!).

    1. LOL I'd probably enjoy that. I love my "what X can teach us..." posts.

  7. 'Chef as asshole' is actually becoming something of a cliche/trope. Haven't seen the movie, but no compelling reason to do so now! Fantastic application of what *not* to do in your summary, Janice - the movie industry can lean a little on fast-moving edits and spec visuals, but novelists can never afford to rely on such distractions. That you saw through those devices is why I follow your advice more than any other writing guide.

    1. It totally is, and that's annoys me. I agree, movies can get away with things books never could. As long as we don't think too hard about them! Many a movie has been ruined by an in-depth conversation after the fact, lol. So many plot holes found! And thanks!

  8. Yuck. That really does sound like a mess.

    Stakes and consequences aren't *entirely* everything, but they mean a lot. A journey just has more momentum when scenes are a question of "Will he move forward or be shoved back?" rather than "Will he move or get stuck?" And the latter is even weaker when it feels like (like you said) he can just keep trying again anyway.

    If the story's got so little sense of energy in its changes, it *really* needs its characters or its details to make us care. And "everyone loves a jerk in a chef's hat" is missing the point.

    1. It could have been so good if they just used what they setup. Movement is totally key. It plays into that whole "readers want to see what happens next" drive.

      Exactly. I can get behind a story if I love the character, but I have zero interest in watching someone be awful for two hours and then get what they want with no effort.

  9. Janice, this is awesome advice. Some things for my to think about as I do another revision on my novel since I haven't been getting any traction on it from the public. As much as I love support, friends and family don't count as genuine reviews since they know me.

    1. That's so true, even if it is nice :) Getting that traction is hard for most authors, but you're smart for looking at ways to fix that. Good luck!