Writing Tips: Stakes & Conflict
Dear Blog readers, here is another blog entry of my series based on notes I provided to a writer. I hope you find it helpful!
Stakes and Conflict in Fiction
Remember, in real life, as you well know, events in our lives tend to be cumulative, our damage can be repressed, and most of us try to avoid "drama" and crisis. But in fiction, drama, and crisis is right in the midst, we cannot avoid them, we must make hard choices - and often the wrong choices to try to make things better (to regain the equilibrium I mentioned earlier.) Fiction is real life sped up, made much more intense, and is about crisis and stakes. As I said, the level of the crisis is relative to the character and the genre. In a romantic comedy, what's at stake is usually love itself - and by extension, that our main character is lonely and incomplete and unhappy. They NEED this romance to work out. But it won't work out until they sort out their innermost problems. The Rolling Stones said it best - you can't get what you want until you get what you need. In a science fiction/action story, what's at stake might be the very existence of earth - maybe a meteor is rushing toward the White House and our hero has to overcome his or her personal issues and flaws before they can effectively save the day. In a period piece set in the 1800's what's at stake may be the honor of a family, or whether the debutante gets invited to the cotillion and is therefore accepted, and successful. Because, in that scenario, the opposite - being socially rejected and seen as a failure, as an "old maid" could be crippling for life. So what's at stake, what's on the line is relative to the character and to the story.
Fiction is real life on steroids. In a story, ALL the stuff is coming to a head NOW. That is what makes reading so pleasurable. If much of real life is, as they say, spent waiting in line, in fiction, your character spends most of their time trying to overcome a crisis - which is a vicarious pleasure for the reader. It puts our own problems into perspective and gives us the pleasure of putting ourselves into someone else's shoes - what would WE do?
You might be thinking - wait - in some of my favorite books, things play out more slowly, a whole lifetime can be lived in a book. True. This is dependent on a few things: the genre (for example, literary fiction), the skill of the writer overall (some writers are so poetic and persuasive that every page is a joy, even when events are not moving quickly) and quite frankly, the period of time in which the book was written. It used to be the case that readers had more patience for a long-haul, slow-burn read. That's really not true anymore. Fewer and fewer people read at all and when they do - they want something binge-worthy, something that they can't put down.