Writing Compelling Conflict: The Stakes

For conflict to be truly meaningful in a story, there must be real stakes involved for the character. It is important to establish those stakes early in the development of the conflict so the reader is aware of how not reaching a goal or fulfilling a journey will affect the characters.

What are Stakes?

Simple put, the stakes are what the character risks by failing.

Don’t put limits the types of risks of failure or on how a character might be affected. If a relationship fails, yes there will be emotional trauma, but there might also be a ripple effect of losing other people from his or her life, a decline in self-esteem, negative affects on job performance, etc.

Explore all types of stakes associated with failure, then focus most on the stakes that will have the biggest impact, which might not be the most obvious one. This risk MUST matter and be big enough that the reader feels anxiety over the fact that it could all fall apart and harm the character in some way.

Failure to finish a degree or accept a job in order to relocate for a relationship can build resentment. Failure to confront something in the past can push a character to run from a current relationship. Failure to prioritize a relationship over work/money/ambition will result in missed opportunities and damage a relationship.

Risks can be internal or external.

External risks are those that would cause physical harm. These are often most at play in adventure, crime, mystery, thriller, etc. types of stories where the character’s physical safety is at risk if they fail to escape, finish a journey, solve a mystery, etc.

Internal risks are those that cause emotional or mental harm. These types of risks can be at play in just about any story type. Romance stories often focus on the emotional trauma of a relationship ending or losing a loved one, however the mental wellness of a character should also be considered. Personal growth or coming of age stories often do focus on mental wellness aspects of how a character is harmed by a trauma or the development and growth need to overcome difficult experiences.

Be sure you are considering and weighing the various types of risks and avenues of how a character might be affected when developing stakes in a story. The more layers, the more depth and realism a story will hold for the reader.

A great example of setting and developing meaningful stakes in a story is the film “Run, Fat Boy, Run.”

The main character Dennis signs up for a marathon after his ex-girlfriend’s (who he ran away from on their wedding day while she was pregnant) new fiancé brags about running the race. Whether or not the Dennis actually finishes the race doesn’t really matter to anyone but him. He needs to fulfill an internal goal of proving he can finish something difficult and not run away. There’s no external risk of him failing to finish the race, but the internal risk is quite high.

Once you have identified the main stakes for your character in not reaching or achieving a goal, take the time to develop 2 or 3 smaller stakes that add concern from the reader and deepen his or her emotional connection to the character.