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No matter what kind of novel you’re writing, no matter the genre, your story will not be memorable without trouble. Even love stories and kids' books have conflict. And every great story begins with some level of conflict. 

While a novel doesn’t necessarily have to include conflict on the first page, it doesn’t hurt. It’s one of many techniques to immediately involve readers in a story, pique their interest, begin to ask themselves questions and make them want to read more. Yep, even in romances – look at Grease. In the beginning, the summer has ended, and Sandy and Danny will never see each other again. That is a tragedy when you are seventeen.

Conflict can be big and noisy like a fistfight or it can be quiet like a person who wants two opposing things and can’t decide, but make sure it’s there. Conflict must exist in every scene. And generally, but not always, conflicts are short-lived like the two examples here.  

Stakes, on the other hand, are more primal and long-lasting. Stakes are weaved through the fabric of a novel. A plot that hinges on primal drives like survival, hunger, sex, protection of a loved one, love itself, fear of death, revenge, etc., will connect with readers at a fundamental level because everyone “gets” those things. Stakes have to matter, but by the end of a novel, they have to matter more than anything else in the world. 

An audience has to know the stakes, and they have to know them sooner rather than later. The longer readers go without knowing the stakes, the more lost they feel in terms of understanding the story and the characters’ motivations. It’s crucial the reader knows what is to be gained or lost in the battle or during the journey or in the love affair. Whether a red marble or the universe is at risk, the stakes are crucial and supply the motivational drive to achieve a goal. 

Characters are the engine that drives a story, and if the stakes are not high enough––or worse, not there at all––the story becomes artificial. Both conflicts and stakes must be personal and internal. And as a result, remember, conflicts and stakes also may be specific and different for each character. Stakes mean more to us as an audience when the stakes mean more to the characters. 

There are three kinds of stakes for characters:

PERSONAL STAKES - A protagonist’s stakes are not just what motivates him or her. Personal stakes illustrate the reasons why this goal must be achieved, or that action must be performed to end matters in a positive, profound, and personal sense.

ULTIMATE STAKES - When life tests humans to the utmost, our motives grow exponentially greater. Our most profound convictions rise close to the surface. We care even more. We become more determined than ever to make a difference, to persist, to overcome all problems and obstacles. The hero of a novel will also be tested to the limit of his or her convictions. If not, ask yourself, are there enough obstacles in the way of this character?

PUBLIC STAKES - Public stakes not only affect the main character but the community, the nation, the world! Things can go wrong in so many different ways. That’s the essence of raising the outward, or public, stakes––making matters worse for people or the populace in general, showing readers that there is more to lose than just one’s self, promising even bigger disasters will happen if the hero doesn’t make matters come out okay. The train will derail, and hundreds of people will die. The Government Embassy will burn. The universe will collapse on itself. 

Raising the public stakes is easy in thrillers, mysteries, action-adventure, and science fiction/fantasy novels. The action in such stories usually has significance for more than just the characters involved. Public safety and security are issues. But what about the stakes in other types of novels like sagas, coming-of-age stories, romances, and family dramas? It’s the same. Coming of age novels can deal with racism, sexual situations, and so on. In Romance, throw a third person into the mix. In the end, someone must lose love. Family drama may deal with the death of a relative and its effect on members of the family. 

To summarize, a novel can have personal stakes where the main character struggles with his sanity as in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. The main character may be tested to the limit of his existence as in Jack London’s To Build A Fire. And worlds may be jeopardized as in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And of course, a novel can also have a combination of these stakes.

 

by Paul Hollis  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @HollowManSeries / TheHollowManSeries.com