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No Stakes, No Tension

A few recent much-hyped books reminded me of the importance of story stakes. Every story has an overall story problem with stakes:

Good versus Evil.

Win versus lose.

Love versus loss.

The protagonist will gain or lose something by solving or failing to solve this overall story imbalance.

In a Mystery, if the sleuth fails to solve the crime, the criminal will be free to strike again.

In a Thriller, if the protagonist fails to stop the threat, people die or a mega-corporation takes over the world.

In a Romance, if the man loses the girl of his dreams, he will go back to feeling lonely and disconnected.

In a Fantasy, if the protagonist fails, the paranormal evil wins the day making life miserable for everyone involved.

In a Team Victory, if the coach or lead athlete fails, they suffer a loss of esteem and self-esteem.

The stakes are what make us care whether the protagonist succeeds or not and there must be repercussions if they fail.

If a main character devalues his own life, he won’t make a compelling protagonist. I hate depressive “my life is horrible why bother to live” characters.

If she does not care if she lives, why should I? If she does not think she is worth loving, why should I love her? There are people walking around in life that feel that way. They need individualized professional therapy. They will not be miraculously cured by the end of 300 pages by a love interest.

Some protagonists are driven by revenge, rage, or injustice, but it’s stronger if they believe that life is worth fighting for. That doesn’t mean he can’t be noble enough to lay down his life for his fellow man. However, the protagonist has to believe his life was worth something in the first place to give the sacrifice value.

In addition, the stakes have to be highest for the protagonist. Friends and Foes and the Antagonist should have stakes in the game, too. If you assign higher stakes to secondary characters, the story structure is unsound. The reader may find herself rooting for the protagonist to walk away from the story problem rather than solve it.

It’s like a dysfunctional friendship. Dick’s life is fine (job, relationships, etc.) and his friend, Ted, gets into a self-destructive relationship with a manipulative con artist. The situation will create ripples for Dick, but there are no stakes for Dick. It’s his friend’s life. If Ted allows himself to be used, there isn’t much Dick can do about it. Other than say, “Dude, what are you doing with this psycho chick? She is messed up. Move on.”

Unless Ted is the catalyst that brings psycho chick into Dick's world (i.e. inciting event) and psycho chick turns her attentions to Dick, Dick has no real stakes in the game other than mild inconvenience or concern for his friend. Ted is the one whose life is about to go sideways. Ted is the one with the stakes.

If a stranger approaches Jane and says, “Hey, have I got a deal for you. Unless you help me, I’m going to die.” Why should Jane care? She may be a decent person who hates to see anyone die. However, she is unlikely to risk her own life for a total stranger, worse an obnoxious stranger, unless the stranger’s death results in nuclear holocaust or the end of the world as we know it. If that is true, Jane needs this information up front. Otherwise, unless her boundaries are really, really fuzzy, she will walk away. You don't want a protagonist's boundaries to be that fuzzy!

If a stranger approaches Jane with this kind of request, she has to be the only one on the planet with the special knowledge or capability to save the world. Otherwise, the conflict isn’t personal for Jane. It’s personal for the stranger and the stranger should be the protagonist. If Jane thinks, “My life sucks and I wasn’t doing anything anyway,” that is poor motivation for solving someone else’s story problem. It’s hard to root for a protagonist so apathetic about her own life.

There are action hero protagonists who are given a “death” wish mentality. They have nothing left to lose: their job is gone and their wife/child is dead, etc. The plot strips them of everything they had to live for and all that is left is the desire for revenge. Readers and viewers love revenge. It is a universal emotion everyone in every culture can tap into. It’s the basis for Mysteries, Thrillers, Con and Heist, even Literary stories. It’s a great excuse for huge theatrical chase scenes, explosions, and fight scenes in movies. 
In literature, revenge fueled The Count of Monte Cristo and The Man in the Iron Mask. 

For me, as a reader, it’s stronger if the protagonist still has something or someone left to live for or hopes to regain.

Even so, that is not the same as having the protagonist solve a complete stranger’s problem for them simply because she has nothing better to do and hates her own life enough she is willing to die for a stranger to rid herself of it.

Your protagonist can be flawed. Her thinking can be faulty. He can be mildly depressed or grieving, but protagonists should not be pathetic.

If the reader is rooting for your protagonist to die, you have chosen the wrong horse for your race.

Are You Plotting or Plodding?

This week I'm over at the Blood Red Pencil to discuss the difference between story and situation.

Blood-Red Pencil: First Steps: Situation or Story?: I've heard a lot of great ideas for stories from people over the years. The problem? They describe a situation, not a story.

Story and Scene Goals

Last week, we looked at different options for scene and overall story goals. This week, we'll look at examples that illustrate the theory. Scenes are stonger if the characters involved have opposing goals that create tension. Conflict does not have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight scene.

1. At the overall story level, if Dick wants to marry Jane, the antagonistic forces try to keep them apart. Each scene involves a combination of characters fighting to make it happen or keep it from happening. Friends and foes may have their own goals that help or hinder their relationship. Sally is in love with Dick, so she does everything she can to capture his attention, until she feels forced to kidnap him.

2. Ted might decide that Jane isn’t really good for Dick. He can interfere by relating harmful gossip about Jane or by inserting himself into Dick and Jane’s date at scene level. He can try to make it look like Jane cheated on Dick.

3. Sally might want to own Spot because Spot is a perfect example of his breed and is worth gazillions in breeding fees. Sally might kidnap Spot or try to fool Dick by switching Spot with a dog that looks similar. Sally will either succeed or fail. Every time the antagonist fails in her goal, she is forced to come up with new tactics.

4. Dick might fight to keep a law because it is beneficial to him. Dick and Jane will fiercely debate their sides of the thematic argument with each other and with their friends and foes. They will gain support and lose support. At the climax of the conflict, the law will either be upheld or overturned.

5. Sally may not want Jane to leave the company because doing so would make it a lonelier place to work. Sally will take steps to convince Jane to stay. The steps can be comic, touching or obsessively creepy. Sally will either succeed or fail. Jane will leave, stay, or escape death by a hair’s breadth.

6. Jane believes in fairies. Everyone at school thinks she is crazy. She will attempt to prove her belief is valid. Her evidence will be convincing, or not. The more unsubstantiated the proof she offers, the crazier she appears. She may find allies in students who want to believe or who had unusual encounters themselves. The school authorities and other students will do everything they can to make her look insane. If the fairy queen is killing people, Jane might be blamed for the deaths. It will be even more important for her to prove she is innocent and the reader will be rooting for her to succeed. In the final climactic moment, the fairy queen appears and vaporizes half the school. They believe Jane, but it’s too late for most of them. She succeeds but others pay for their disbelief.

7. At the scene level, if Jane wants the corner office, Dick will refuse to give it up. Jane might appeal to their boss, stating she has the greater talent. She might undermine Dick's current project to make him look bad. If that doesn't work, she may try to bribe Dick. If that doesn’t work, she can threaten to kill him if he doesn't step down.

8. Sally is confronted with a situation that she can either allow or avert. Sally knows someone plans to embarrass Dick at a party. If she likes Dick, she will warn him or do something to change the situation so Dick isn’t embarrassed. If she hates Dick, she will sit back and enjoy the spectacle. If the reader likes Dick, they will feel bad. If they hate Dick, they will enjoy it with her.

9. Jane may need to tell Dick something important about Sally. Sally overhears Jane’s opening conversational salvo, “Dick, do you remember last week when you thought your office door had been locked, but you found it open?” Sally realizes Jane is about to tell Dick she saw Sally leaving Dick’s office. As Jane attempts to deliver the information, Sally distracts Dick so that he can’t listen. She might talk over Jane. She might try to steer Dick away from Jane. She may employ a full-frontal verbal assault that forces Jane to defend herself instead of delivering the important information to Dick. Jane can successfully dodge Sally’s attempts and succeed, or she will leave the field and attempt to tell Dick another day. If she fails, the scene goal isn’t satisfied and Jane will have to make another attempt to achieve it. A further complication has been created and Sally will have to find a way to silence Jane. Sally may bribe or threaten her in a subsequent scene.

10. Dick may believe that Sally is lying about where she went the night before. Dick needs reassurance. His mental security center is under attack. He will ask probing questions. If Sally is telling the truth, she will answer him calmly, but with a touch of irritation because she hates having her integrity questioned. If she is lying, she will have to invent the story on the fly. The more specific the questions, the more awkward and convoluted her answers will become. Sally will either storm off or turn the tables and accuse Dick of everything from leaving the toilet seat up to being the lone gunman who shot JFK. Dick will either back down or give her an ultimatum, “Tell me the truth or we’re done.” Dick will either succeed at his scene goal or fail. The reader will be rooting for Dick to hear the truth if they dislike Sally. They will be rooting for him to be wrong if they like Sally.

Coming up with scenes that keep the reader engaged is easy once you start thinking of them in this way. There are many subtle ways to build conflict and tension with opposing goals.

You can visit to download free scene-building worksheets.

For more information on how to craft believable conflict check out: 

For more information on scene goals, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict.

Understanding Scene Goals

Coming up with a scene or story goal sounds momentous and difficult.

It isn’t.

Your character doesn’t need to have a million dollar sales goal or desire to scale Mount Everest.

Writers pick goals for their characters instinctively, if not consciously. When you sit down to write a scene, your characters do and say things. What they do and say should have purpose. Their actions and words should move the story forward or cause complications or reversals.

Every story should have a central conflict at the heart of it that is easily summarized in a one-sentence logline.

A strong scene has a central conflict too. That doesn't mean only one thing happens in a scene or that only one character has a goal in each scene. It means the point of view character for each scene has a reason for being there and that he is earning his page time.

Think of a story or scene goal as having a subject, object, verb, and outcome.

The subject is the point of view character.

The verb is the motion toward or away from the object.
  • Obtain or get rid of it. 
  • Hold onto or release it. 
  • Reach or escape it 
  • Hide or reveal it. 
  • Change or keep from changing it. 
  • Tell or not tell it. 
  • Evade or capture it. 
  • Avert or allow it. 
  • Define or obscure it. 
  • Prove or disprove it. 
  • Evaluate or decide it. 
The object is the target or focus of the words and actions.
  • Person 
  • Place 
  • Thing 
  • Information 
  • Situation 
  • Physical Task 
  • Mental Task 
  • Need 
  • Want 
  • Emotion 
  • Belief 
  • Prejudice 
For every struggle there is an outcome.
  • The character can succeed in his goal and feel good about it or bad about it. 
  • The character can achieve his goal only to find out it was the wrong goal. 
  • The character can achieve his goal and find they have created a bigger problem. 
  • The character can fail and feel good about it or bad about it. 
  • The character can fail and realize he was after the wrong goal, so his failure was really a success. 
The goal of the antagonist, or antagonistic forces, is to keep the protagonist from obtaining the object and make the verb challenging.

Friends and foes provide stumbling blocks and step ladders to keep the character moving toward and away from the object and make the verb more difficult or easier.

Providing stiff opposition and high stakes equals high tension.

Movement toward and away from the scene and story goals creates satisfying S-curves readers enjoy cruising, or racing, through to reach the story’s end. It adds the requisite tension to keep the reader turning pages.
If you can complete one sentence for your entire story, you have a solid logline.

Character (subject) wants to (verb) the (object) and (outcome).

If you can complete one sentence for every chapter, you have a solid synopsis.

Next week, we'll illustrate the theory.

You can visit to download free scene-building worksheets.

For more information on scene goals, pick up a copy of Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict.