In writing, however, I am forced to deal with s-t-a-k-e-s. Not only do I need to know what is at stake for my characters; I also need to raise those stakes at every opportunity. How do I do that? By adding conflict.
As a novelist, you can’t simply create an interesting character and then do nothing with him or her. No matter how endearing or complex the character is, readers aren’t going to care unless, as a writer, you make that character jump over some hurdles. And to keep the reader interested, you need to raise those hurdles higher and higher as the story progresses.
To do that, you need to make your protagonist’s life hell. You have to create a whole bunch of problems for her, and then you have to ask yourself, “How could I make her predicament even worse?” And then you have to do whatever the answer to that question is.
As someone who shies away from conflict at every opportunity, I had to recalibrate my comfort level with conflict when I started writing novels. I had to accept that the sorts of situations that would make me really uncomfortable are exactly the sorts of situations I should throw my characters into to propel the story forward.
My main character, Hannah Sugarman, wants to cook for a living, so I had to throw as many obstacles in her way as I could to prevent that from happening. At the beginning, those obstacles include overbearing parents, a disapproving boyfriend, lack of financial support, a big mouth, and some major personal insecurity. When Hannah decides to start an underground supper club — a decision rife with conflict given that underground supper clubs are technically illegal — I had to throw more problems her way: a landlord who is running for local office (and wants to tighten restaurant licensing regulations), added (and unwelcome) responsibilities at her day job, increased publicity for an illicit venture she desperately wants to keep a secret, and so on.
As the story progresses, I made things even worse for Hannah. I really backed her into a corner so that not only was it harder for her to achieve her goal, but it also mattered more if she failed. I can’t tell you exactly how I did that without ruining some of the story, so you’ll have to read the book to find out exactly what I mean! But suffice it to say, I didn’t give Hannah an easy time.
In my everyday life, I’m happy to keep the conflict to a minimum, so that the only stakes I have to intensify are s-t-e-a-k-s. But in writing, I’ve learned to love conflict and the extra meat it adds to the plot.
Your turn! Which of your favorite books does an excellent job at intensifying conflict and raising the stakes for the main character?
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