f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 5 of Stakes and Conflict - Feeling Very (or Not-So-Very) Conflicted

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

Monday, November 01, 2004

Day 5 of Stakes and Conflict - Feeling Very (or Not-So-Very) Conflicted

A week or two ago during our look at “stakes,” a reader asked what the difference was between “stakes” and “conflict” was and whether you needed both. At the time, I answered that, so far as I understood the terms, they were the same.

And I do think they are often used interchangeably. But after some more thinking, I’ve decided to refine my definition and talk about something that gets thrown-out with the bath water in much modern storytelling.

Call it the “happy-ever-after dilemma.”

You’re watching a film, a romantic comedy starring (most likely) Reese or Jennifer or Kirsten. What’s at stake for this heroine is “wuv…twoo wuv.” Those stakes should be high enough and universal enough to drag us through…and yet the movie seems a bit bland. The problem may be that we know what’s going to happen. We know that the girl is going to get the guy…and so while the stakes are high, the CONFLICT or DRAMATIC TENSION keeping the two lovers apart is negligible.

I wonder if we run into the same problems in writing about faith. A character is questioning God in a book from a CBA publisher. What are the odds that said character will have their faith renewed by the end of the book? The stakes, again, are high. It’s the conflict, the dramatic tension that’s the problem.

I think this raises its head significantly in genre fiction because, for the most part, there are rules that need to be followed. Murders should be solved. Bad guys should be put away. Love should be found. Quests should reach a rousing conclusion. Evil should perish. You can’t write Lord of the Rings and have Sauron triumph.

With that in mind, you need to raise the very armies of Mordor to face your protagonist. If we know things are going to turn at well, we need to at least either be uncertain for a minor instant or not know how they turn out well.

And finally, we need to look at the riches to be mined in books where the answer to a story’s stakes are not foreseen. Having read a lot of Richard Russo, for instance, I thought I knew where his Empire Falls was headed. I was very wrong. Lying Awake, I think, makes the conflict and tension of the book almost as important as what’s at stake itself. Asher Lev, I think wrings great drama out of the conflict raised as Asher pushes forth toward becoming an artist.

When all is said and done, though, you do need stakes and conflict. One without the other…and your story is flat.


So that’s it. Tomorrow there’s this little thing going on called the Presidential Election. Please vote. I’m off to be a good American in another way by donating blood. If you are able to do that, too, and haven’t in a while, please do. They’ll give you juice. And cookies. It's like kindergarten, but with a few more syringes and surgical tubing.