5.2 STAKES AND EMOTION
Raising the stakes: conflict and tension
When we think about what makes us turn page after page of a novel, we think it’s a compelling plot, or a great character. And you’d be right, to an extent.
But as writers, we have to think beyond the surface of what keeps our readers compelled. We have to dig deeper and look at the mechanics of the plot and the past and present of our characters. We need to search for what matters most to them, about what would make their world end…then put them in the balance…
When we read a newspaper (or an online news app or whatever), what glues us to some stories, and not others. What makes us read to end of some, but not get past the first few lines of others?
Conflict, stakes and consequences for when it all goes wrong.
We love to read of the demise of an unethical CEO of a large pharmaceutical. Not because we want the worst for that individual, because we know how much they have to lose. The stakes are high, and so therefore, is a reader’s compulsion to find out what happened.
Just look at the news. Stories of crimes and disaster get more airtime than stories of a brave firefighter or a duck that swam the Atlantic.
We crave stories with high stakes so we can see just how far that person can fall when it doesn’t go well for them. Those consequences, whether they get a reward for achieving a goal, or they lose big when they don’t achieve a goal, are what we want to read. Does the reward match the achievement? Does the punishment match the crime?
How do we keep raising the stakes for our main characters, so that our reader is desperate to turn those pages and find out what happens?
Before we explore raising the stakes, there are two key things which can help us do that. Conflict and tension. Let’s explore what those are and how we can achieve those in our stories.
The basis of conflict is opposition. The simplest way to view this is protagonist and antagonist. But what makes them oppose each other. They have contrasting views or wants/needs which are in opposition to each other’s.
Or in Physics terms: for every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction.
Frodo wants to destroy the ring, Sauron wants to use it.
In general, and this is a very simplistic view, the conflict within a story generally comes in three basic types:
- Conflict with the self
- Conflict with others
- Conflict with the environment
Conflict with the self, the internal battle a lead character has within, is often the most powerful.
And therefore, when we look at how to raise the stakes, we will focus mostly upon internal conflict.
Suggested writing task
For your story, write down the main conflicts in your story. For maximum effect, be sure the conflict is maxed up by making things as much in opposition as possible.
e.g. if you’re character lives in a world where atheism is punished by being burned at the stake, then make your MC an atheist. That covers all 3 levels of conflict and sets up for conflict at every turn of your story.
But don’t stop there, keep layering it on at every turn. Do your worst to your MC, to make your novel a compelling page-turner.
Tension is defined as mental or emotional strain. And that’s important to remember – so many films I watch and unpublished books I read, focus very much upon the external thing happening to a character. They injure them, then make them face another battle, then another, think Avengers!
And that’s fine, but the real key to building tension in your novel is not what physically happens to your MC, but how you can affect them mentally.
Going back to Avengers – the real compelling element to that film is not the all the special effects and action scenes and fights, but the moments where the characters are pushed to their emotional limits. For example, I watched Civil War the other day, and there’s a scene where Iron Man and Captain America make up and agree to take on the antagonist together.
That could be quite a flat finale, as the antagonist can’t compete physically, but like a good writer, the antagonist instead applies emotional strain upon Iron Man by showing a video of his parent’s death, where a brainwashed Winter Soldier (Capt America’s best friend) kills Iron Man’s parents.
The ensuing scene is again awash with testosterone and action and special effects, but the tension is in watching the reaction of Iron Man to this emotional strain. It’s of seeing how far Captain America will go to defend his murdering best friend. It’s full of lots of tension bot because of the fight or conflict itself, but because of the tension that is laced through the conflict.
So, with tension, remember the mental and emotional side to conflict.
Make it personal. Make it emotional.
Suggested writing task
For each of your conflicts in the previous exercise, see how you can add tension by making it more personal and more emotional. You’ll elevate that conflict with every added layer.
Raising the stakes
So, you’ve got your conflicts and you’ve upped the tension by making those conflicts both personal and emotional.
You’ve already down the groundwork in raising the stakes.
But do we go even further – how do we keep that reader turning the 300 pages and want to know which way it will go for our MC?
We start introducing consequences.
We have goals for our MC and we have our conflicts, pushing back in opposition against our MC achieving those goals.
But what if they don’t achieve them? When the conflict becomes too much, what’s to stop our MC just shrugging, turning round and heading home?
We need to have consequences for failure to reach the goal. But we also need consequences or reasons to not turn their back. To keep moving forward. It has to mean more to the MC to achieve their goal than to not.
And there’s a lot of ways to do this in a story sense.
But at the heart of it all is ensuring that each scene moves our character forward (or each character moves the scene forward!) and that there is cause and effect. We need to build and escalate, so that turning away at any point because more and more difficult, and that there is more and more to lose.
Events should build and build so that the choices for the MC become more and more difficult and ideally we’ll end with the MC having to make a choice so impossible and with so much at stake, that either becomes a no-win situation, and once we push them to that point, we’ll have our reader glued. They’ll not be able to resist finding out which way the story will go…and most importantly, they’ll be desperate to see the consequences of the choice.
As with our conflicts and tension, aim for personal – the more personal, the better. The more emotional, the bigger the impact on the reader.
Suggested writing task
What is the worst thing that our MC can lose at any point?
Make them consider this. Narrow their choices down, so that they can only choice between two decisions, both of which have poor consequences for them.
Make them choose the lesser of two evils at all times.
Then elevate it – make the lesser of the two evils more personal. Make it affect them more emotionally than the other. Force them to choose the greater of the two evils and have to live with those consequences.
Apply Murphy’s Law with abandon. Whatever can go wrong, should go wrong. Make the path as difficult for our MC as possible, so that we are constantly raising the stakes and forcing our readers to root for our MC, which will make their failures all the more emotional.
Make a character die. This is a common part of storytelling – sacrificing a character is a sure-fire way to evoke emotions, to make the stakes high. But even then, the novice writer can make those moments feel flat.
So, apply the same principles – make it personal. Make it emotional. Make it the MC’s fault in some way. Make them blame themselves. Make the MC make the choice that results in the death.
Or, make the character who dies in an act of self-sacrifice the very opposite at the start of the novel. Make them selfish, or make them betray or MC. When they perform the self-sacrifice later, the turnaround will hold greater emotional appeal.