f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of Stakes and Conflict - What's at Stake?

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Day 3 of Stakes and Conflict - What's at Stake?

For me, the greatest example of high stakes is from the film, D.O.A., the 1950s film noir. Basic plot: a guy is told he’s been poisoned. He has two days to figure out who did it and why in hopes of saving himself. There’s a thousand other great examples, but for me that one always takes the cake.

Simply put, life or death = high stakes. Love or loneliness is another big one. Truth or ignorance/ Danger or safety/ Justice or injustice: these all fuel the mystery field, often using death as an inciting incident as opposed to the stakes themselves. Success or failure is at the heart of many novels. Win or lose. Right or wrong. Guilty or pardoned.

Those are examples of stakes for what typically make up your “external” plots. Is Grisham’s intrepid-young-lawyer going to extricate himself from the clutches of The Firm? Are King’s protagonists going to escape the clutches of It? Is Emma Woodhouse going to win herself the clutches of noble Mr. Knightley? How about Bridget and Mr. Darcy? Is Hamlet ever going to avenge his father’s death? Will winter ever end in Narnia? And, for the love of all that’s good in Middle Earth, can somebody please grow a pair and throw that damn ring into Mt. Doom?

Now if a story is poorly told or filled with too much epic elf poetry readers may not end up caring about the stakes. But that’s a fault of pacing, writing, and other things—not the stakes themselves.

The problem is when somebody reads your manuscript and says: “But what’s the point?”

I see this happening mostly with character-driven fiction. Scenes can be beautiful; sentences can be eloquent; symbols can ring with the echo of angels. And yet the book just seems to be spinning its wheels, headed nowhere.

Chances are either your inciting incident isn't strong enough to overcome the inertia that is Page 1 of a book or your character has nothing at stake, at least in the eyes of the reader.

“Internal” stakes are a lot more complicated to describe. They don’t boil down so neatly into life or death, this or that, unless you’re writing a conversion story and the stakes end up being Heaven or Hell.

“Internal” stakes, most often have to do with overcoming something mentally or becoming fully-changed as a person. We all know how difficult it is to actually change and so this can make for some tremendous emotional fodder. Richard Russo writes books in this vein, taking scallywag men and giving them a second chance at being a decent father. About a Boy offers a selfish cad a chance to get off his self-imposed islandhood. Godric is the story of a man desperately hoping the truth of his life can be told.

Dramas are rife with “internal” stakes. Ibsen, Chekhov, Miller, O’Neill, Williams—the characters in these dramas often face incredible strains on their humanities, and in the great tragic tradition often fail to be changed.

Novels—let’s just say it’s harder to get away with that. Especially a CBA novel. Very few readers out there want to spend 500 pages with a person only for them to fail us. It’s real, but it’s depressing. But you have more than one character arc in your story, more than one set of “internal” and even “external” stakes. There’s no saying that it all must be sunshine and roses.


That’s an overview of internal stakes. Tomorrow we’ll talk briefly about the $10,000,000 question—How to make something that’s vitally important to your character vitally important to your reader, too.

Continue to Day 4 of Stakes and Conflict.