The Secret to Crafting High Stakes

We’re looking at conflict in our fiction, and last week I touched a bit on this essential “corner pillar” of novel construction. Conflict is crucial to having a compelling story, for if our hero has no obstacles as he tries to reach his goal, the story will be bor-ing. What would The Wizard of Oz be like if, once Dorothy arrived in the Land of Oz, she had only to take a walk in the park without incident to arrive back in Kansas? Well, there wouldn’t be a story, and story is everything.

So I’ll assume we’re in agreement that we need conflict in our novels. I talked last week about some different types of classic scenarios that pit man against other forces (opposition), and how conflict doesn’t necessarily imply a bad guy or antagonist blocking your hero’s way. But what conflict should do is present high stakes for him.

 The Truth about High Stakes

So just what are stakes? Stakes come in two forms. You may or may not have heard the terms “public stakes” and “personal stakes,” but those are, in a nutshell, the two types of stakes at play in a story. Public stakes affect the world at large (in your story). They are stakes that affect others besides your character.

The best stories, in my opinion, are the ones that have both public and personal stakes in spades. And I’ll even say the stories in which the personal stakes are the highest are the better stories. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Stakes are what is at risk for your character. In general, stakes can be for gain or loss. Characters make choices and initiate action as they go after their goal, and every choice and action should have something at stake—something to gain or lose.

 You might assume high stakes (big risks, big losses) only come into play in genres like international thrillers or action/adventure novels, but I disagree. Any story, however small scale and personal, can present huge stakes and huge consequences.

How can that be? Because it’s all about the character and her goal.

 Yes, we’re back to that. Am I starting to sound like a broken record (some of you might even be old enough to know what a record is)? No doubt. If you create a compelling story with a highly sympathetic protagonist, who has a goal that means everything to her, then those stakes, for her, are going to be high. If her happiness lies solely in reaching that goal, then anything that prevents her from her heart’s desire is going to be . . . well, heartbreaking—not just for her but for the reader.

High Stakes Are Personal

I could name countless books and movies that work on a small personal scale but bring in universal themes (and that is the key!) to bear. One that keeps coming to mind as I write this is the exquisite movie Fly Away Home. Okay, it’s a movie about a bunch of geese. Right? So why is it when I even start to think about this film, tears flood my eyes (yes, even now)? Why is it when I listen to the beautiful “theme” song of the movie, “10,000 Miles,” sung by Mary Chapin Carpenter, I always cry? Because that movie—a simple story about a young girl named Amy who gets a flock of geese to relocate to a safe new home—breaks my heart and heals it in one fell swoop.

No, it’s not about the geese! It could be about ants or crickets or Twinkies—that’s the honest truth. The setting, essentially, is not an issue either. This story could have taken place in Taiwan or South Africa. And many beautiful, powerful stories are set in obscure places featuring one unknown individual dealing with what appears to be a tiny little problem or need. But those are the novels and movies that win awards and high acclaim.

“Big” Is a Matter of Perspective

What’s my point? That it doesn’t really matter how “big” the conflict is in a story. Big, as in visually or publicly big or powerful. What is the central conflict with high stakes in Fly Away Home? Amy’s challenge is to get the dumb birds to follow her in her flying machine so they can be safe from the mean old fish-and-game warden who wants to clip their wings (is that symbolic for a preteen girl or what?). Or something along those lines. There’s a little bit of girl vs. nature as well as girl vs. man (society, the system, etc.). So, why does that meager conflict work? Because of the high stakes. Huh? How are those stakes high?

They are high because of the personal stakes in this film. Because they are high to Amy.

fly away home

Amy’s mother is killed in a car wreck at the beginning of the movie, and now Amy has to move from New Zealand to Canada to live with a father who has been absent from her life and who is the last person in the world she wants to be with. She is in heavy emotional pain and can’t cope. She has lost everything in her life that has meaning for her, and has no hope. But then—enter the eggs.

A bulldozer clearing the land next to her father’s home destroys a nesting site for Canada Geese, and “Mother Goose” flies away. Amy gathers up the eggs, latching on to them as if a lifeline to life and sanity, and hatches them using a makeshift incubator. The movie is really about Amy’s journey out of darkness into light and hope. A journey that opens her heart to her father and to living again. The geese are the vehicle for this. So naturally, anything that opposes her goal of getting those geese to safety threatens her. A lot.

The stakes, should she fail, to her, are huge. They become huge to her father too, as he helps her reach her goal, for their relationship is at stake. And of course, their combined purpose brings them together and brings healing to Amy.

Conflict and stakes don’t get any bigger or better than this. This is the secret to great conflict: high stakes that are personally high to your character. Don’t miss this point; it will make or break your story.

Stakes Tell Just What the Story Is About

When I started writing this post, I had no idea I’d be talking about geese. I hope you get my point here. Note that in this movie, the themes are very personal and universal. Loss, family, hope, determination. This is why readers can love stories set in foreign (or even fantasy) places that tell about people who live lives very different from theirs. So you should be able to see, for example, that the movie Signs is not about aliens, and The Planet of the Apes is not about apes. The conflict, stakes, and themes reveal very different stories than expected.

The Kite Runner, a huge best seller and terrific novel, is set in Afghanistan, depicting a culture and life utterly unfamiliar to many of us. Yet the themes and motifs in this book resonate (there’s that word again that I spoke of earlier) with readers around the world. Amir’s story is a classic one of betrayal, shame, and guilt. When Amir witnesses his close friend Hassan brutalized by a gang of young thugs and he fails, out of cowardice, to help, his guilt plagues him and drives him to do terrible things. Hassan is a messianic figure of self-sacrifice and mercy. The story is poignant and powerful, and the novel is rife with inner and outer conflict. Which is what we are going to explore in an upcoming post.

So I hope this is starting to give you some ideas about stakes and how they must be high—to your protagonist. Every bit of conflict—inner, outer, from any source—that threatens the protagonist’s effort to reach her goal equates to serious conflict with high stakes.

Keep in mind genre will determine the kind of conflict and stakes, as well as the seriousness of it all. A lighthearted comedy can have high stakes involving high jinks all in good fun. But those stakes will still create tension and interest. Can anyone say The Birdcage (La Cage aux Folles)? I bit my nails off in suspense watching Nathan Lane serve soup. Conflict? High stakes? You betcha.

Got some thoughts about conflict and high stakes? Let’s hear them.

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Feature Photo Credit: bortescristian via Compfight cc

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  1. Why, when people talk about writing, must they use film references rather than books (unless we’re talking about a screenplay)? I was always taught the best way to learn to write well is to read across a broad range of literature. Surely there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books out there which could act as examples for the “quest” genre.

    1. I use a lot of film references for two reasons. More people have seen movies than have read the same books (unless one refers to either classics or huge best-sellers). Also, I was raised in TV by screenwriters and producers and my background lends toward cinematic technique, which is what I teach a lot about when it comes to fiction writing. Of course, it’s essential to read and study novels to know how to write novels, and I encourage my clients to read widely and mark up books to understand the various techniques used. However, story is story, and structure holds true across media. I personally like to use movies often when discussing structure as the visuals are very clear, and people who’ve seen the same movie know exactly what a particular scene looks like, which makes it easy to use as a clear example. I know a lot of other great writing instructors who do likewise. I imagine it’s just a matter of personal choice. In my workshops on using cinematic technique (and in last year’s year-long course), I use excerpts from novels to demonstrate the various techniques, and I read long portions from them. But that is done in person and every attendee there hears the material and so can see the point I’m making. There really isn’t room to cite long passages and chapters in a blog post (from a novel), so referring to a movie scene that most have watched is more practical. Hope that makes sense!

  2. I remember records! A few other things also. Your post was great, I will try to adhere to the process.
    James M. Copeland

  3. I just LOVED this post! Thank you so much for sharing it. Loved all the examples too. Another one is Free Willy, by the way. I’ve always wondered why certain stories that are not relatable have such a big impact. I mean technically speaking. And now I know.

    1. Glad this makes sense to you. I think few writers really get that high stakes are all about the character and what she cares most about. Free Willy is a great example!

  4. I really enjoyed this post and now feel the need to see that movie ASAP! A great way to explore this topic.

    I’m struggling a bit with the stakes in my novel since it opens with my character avoiding her past and avoiding conflict, but of course all that has to change, or it will make for a rather boring story!


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