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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 boring. The Classic scenarios we all know about is that of pitting 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. The stories in which the personal stakes are the highest are the better stories.
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. Not true. 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 his/her goal. If you create a compelling story with a highly sympathetic protagonist, who has a goal that means everything to him/her, then those stakes, for him/her, are going to be high. If hi/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
You can also work on a small personal scale but bring in universal themes (and that is the key!). 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
It doesn’t really matter how “big” the conflict is in a story. Big, as in visually or publicly big or powerful. 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
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 with readers around the world. Amir’s story is a classic one of betrayal, shame, and guilt. When Amir witnesses his close friend Hassan brutalised 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.
Hopefully, 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 his/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.
A P Von K'Ory is the winner of six Awards from four continents, the last one being the Achievers Award for African Writer Of The Year 2013 in the Netherlands. She studied Economics, Literature and Journalism in London; Germanistics and German-specific Economics in Germany.
She has five doctorates, some of which she got in her late thirties - she regards knowledge as a lifelong quest of learning something new. She lives in Germany, France, Cyprus and Greece with her German husband, son and two grandsons. Writing is now her full time job.
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