As writers, our primary aim is to keep readers turning the page, glued to our story, compelled to read on way past bedtime. To keep readers up at night, they need to be invested in our story, connected to our characters and their goals.
If a character has no opposition to those goals, then the story is over very quickly.
EG. Maya wants to become a singer, wins a talent competition and is signed to a major label. That may be how the dream goes, but without opposition your story is over in a page.
We need to make that goal hard to attain. Anything we work hard for we value more than something given to us too easily. I think that’s why childbirth is often such an arduous process. After a woman has been battling contractions for hours, her baby is extra precious to her. She’ll kill to protect the tiny being she’s worked so hard for.
So when we create our stories we need to make sure our characters have something to fight against or overcome.
EG: Maya wants to become a singer. She enters a competition, but her parents refuse to let her attend and lock her in her room.
Even more than this, something needs to be at risk, to hang in the balance.
EG: Maya wants to become a singer and she enters a competition, but her parents refuse to let her attend and lock her in her room. But if Maya doesn’t go then she won’t be able to win the prize money to pay for her best friend’s operation.
What’s at stake? Her best friend’s life! As well as Maya’s chance at stardom. That’s going to keep us up at night.
If we look at the primary building block of story – the one sentence “logline” or story idea – it goes something like this.
Our Adjective but contrasting Adjective Protagonist must DO SOMETHING or else RISK SOMETHING IMPORTANT to them.
Helen, a fearless but hot-tempered astronaut must intercept and destroy the meteor before it collides with the earth and destroys the planet.
Of course, what’s at stake doesn’t have to be something huge like the end of the world – you can after all drown in a puddle – but it has to at least FEEL like the end of the world to your character.
As an editor I often see stories without enough at stake.
A traveller wants to see the world. This is not a story but a travel journal or an article in a travel magazine.
A young man is conscripted to a war that’s almost over and never sees a day of fighting. The natural risk of warfare is missing. In this case nothing is at stake, except maybe he’ll die of boredom.
This makes it very difficult to sustain a full-length manuscript.
However, in most cases there is usually something at stake if you dig deep enough. Or you can use the power of your imagination.
If the traveller is escaping a dark past, trying to outrun a dangerous ex-lover, then you have a story. What’s at stake? It could well be the traveller’s life. Now we have a story.
If the young man’s girlfriend is back at home alone and pregnant, then he is risking a lot. Would he attempt to go AWOL to get back to her?
We need to keep the reader in fear of that risk becoming a reality. That balance between HOPE AND FEAR.
If we try to keep to the facts of a story too closely, as we must when writing memoir, there may not naturally be enough at stake. That’s where the freeing power of fiction comes in.
Your essential human truth will still shine through a story that has been fiddled with to create a more compelling narrative. Storytellers have been doing this since we spun our first yarn around the first campfires.
Without an element of risk, something at stake, any conflict is diminished, and we all know that conflict drives stories forward.
Is there a crocodile hidden under this peaceful stream, or maybe rapids just around the corner?
What’s at stake in your story? Is something hanging in the balance? If not, what could be? Have fun figuring out what’s at risk.
Hope this was useful.
Lots of love