Tag Archive: character goals

6 Questions to Make Sure Your Story Has Stakes

Once upon a time I was working on a revamped novel idea – a fun, scary, action-packed revenge story. It was going to be great. I was feeling especially confident after reading this blog: “Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers.” I pictured myself pounding out this simple revenge story while my other novel, a more complicated mystery-thriller, percolated. What a swell plan, and then I noticed something was missing…

STAKES. Holy moly! There were no stakes! And I don’t mean that my vampire hunter heroes forgot their wooden stakes. No, the problem was if my vengeful hero didn’t get her revenge… oh well. Shrug. No biggie. She’d survive. Though all the other points made by the above blog are spot on, like having a proactive hero with a goal, an absence of story stakes can be the revenge plot’s downfall. Beginner writers beware!

But wait, don’t revenge plots inherently have high stakes like dangerous situations and even death? Yes, but putting your hero in life-threatening danger during their quest is a scene stake not a story stake. Every scene needs stakes (aka consequences), but the overall story needs ONE BIG CONSEQUENCE if the hero fails to achieve his goal. It doesn’t matter how many scene stakes you throw at your hero if the overall story stake is missing.

Note that story stakes must be dire enough to make the reader care. If all that happens to the heroine upon failing is she feels crummy, well, so what? In SAVE THE CAT, Blake Snyder explains that stakes need to be “primal”, such as survival, hunger, love, protection of loved ones, and death, to ensure that the audience is invested in the hero’s quest. I struggled against this advice. I mean, come on, does what’s at stake always have to be love or death or survival? So I thought about all my favorite books and TV shows and films, and oh my gosh, yes, the answer is a resounding YES. And the most common primal stake? Love. Even if the story isn’t a romance, even if it’s a life-or-death action flick, love is often a big story stake. This might be why most stories have a love subplot. But the love doesn’t have to be romantic. It can also be paternal or platonic. Just make sure your character cares about someone, then jeopardize that relationship or the actual life of that person to create or raise stakes.

Of course, it’s not just revenge plots that can overlook story stakes. It can happen in any genre. So, to make sure it doesn’t happen to you (and me – again), I’ve made a handy Story Stakes Checklist…

Story Stakes Shark

1)   If the protagonist fails, what happens? Would she lose a loved one, or die tragically, or get her heart irrevocably broken? Would her home be destroyed? Would evil rule the world? Something bad must happen if the protagonist fails to achieve her goal.

2)   Is this the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist? What is your protagonist most scared will happen if he doesn’t achieve his goal? What would figuratively or literally kill him? Or both?

3)   Are the stakes tangible? Will an actual action happen if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal? Will his lover dump him? Will he be sent to jail and separated from his family? Love, like all stakes, loses its power if it’s not connected to a concrete event.

4)   Are the stakes worth fighting for? Your protagonist can’t “kind of” want her goal. Achieving her goal must mean everything to her! Failing would ruin her life! The protagonist can’t be ambivalent to the stakes.

5)   Who else cares about the stakes? If only the protagonist cares, the stakes may be too small. Think about the other characters in the story. Do they care if the protagonist fails or succeeds? At least one should or else the protagonist might be a drama queen with trivial stakes. Stakes cannot be inconsequential.

6)   If your protagonist succeeds, does she save the day? Avoiding the stakes must feel like a giant victory!

Making readers care about your story and protagonist is difficult to pull off, but with primal story stakes it’s possible. Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, figure out the stakes before you start writing, because without stakes, you won’t have a compelling story, and it’s best to find that out before you’ve written tens of thousands of words. Trust me.


For More Blog Posts from Heather, click here!


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Prime Inner Conflict (aka Conflicting Wants)

Earlier this year I wrote a post about Internal Conflict based on a character’s flaws, fears and morality. Like External Conflict, Internal Conflict can be numerous and varied. The only rule is it all must get in the way of the hero achieving his/her goal. If it doesn’t, you don’t have conflict, just baggage.

And then there is what I call the Prime Inner Conflict. This is a want or desire that doesn’t just conflict with the protagonist’s goal, it competes with it. The protagonist can have one or the other, but not both. Put simply, if the hero achieves his goal, he won’t get his inner desire; and if the hero gets his inner desire, he won’t achieve his goal.

For example, in THE HUNGER GAMES, Katniss’s main goal is to win The Games so that she survives and can continue looking after her family. However, she also wants Peeta to survive. This is a huge Inner Conflict because only one tribute will be alive at the end. Katniss wants it to be her, but also wants it to be Peeta. It cannot be both of them. These two conflicting wants torment her the entire book. And readers can’t put the novel down because they have to find out how Katniss will choose between her life and Peeta’s! Such a compelling conundrum!   


So armed with that knowledge, I started developing the heroine for my latest WIP… but I struggled to create her Prime Inner Conflict. I laboured over it so much that I began to question whether it was really necessary. If it was so hard, maybe my story didn’t need it! After all, everyone kept telling me that I didn’t need to write the next Hunger Games. Plus, my protagonist really, really, really wanted to achieve her goal! I couldn’t imagine there was anything else she’d want that much, let alone something that would make her consider giving up her goal. My character is very determined and principled – admirable qualities. Did she really need an inner conflict that would make her all self-doubty? Besides, there are lots of stories where the hero has an external goal and wants that external goal above all else. Right?

Then, serendipitously, I read a book where the heroine had no Prime Inner Conflict. She had Internal Conflict (Should she trust that boy? Should she help that girl?), but nothing ever dissuaded her from pursuing her main goal. For the first 50 pages this was fine, the story was exciting, the stakes were super high, and I was engaged in the heroine’s plight, and then… I got bored. Why? What had changed? Nothing, and that was the problem. The character’s goal was so one-note that I became frustrated with her. Didn’t she care about anything else? Why couldn’t she see that the world wasn’t black and white? And that’s when it hit me, why Prime Inner Conflict is so important – it’s real. Life isn’t simple, it’s not cut and dry, it’s messy and complicated. Characters who don’t wrestle with life’s inner conflicts (as we all do) feel fake and are harder to connect to and root for.

Clearly, I needed to discover my heroine’s Prime Inner Conflict, stat!

And I did. It was hard. It took a lot of soul searching. But I finally came up with something that felt real. And my story will be much better for it.

How do you develop your characters? Do you struggle with their Inner Conflict?

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One Simple Rule of Writing Horror

BookCover-RLStineI love scary stories! As a kid, I devoured every R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan on my small town library’s shelves. When the Scholastic Book Fair came to my school, I ordered more spine-tingling novels. I would read them under my covers with a flashlight, not for atmosphere but because I was supposed to be asleep and I’d be in trouble if my parents caught me reading past my bedtime. I would even stay up late writing scary stories and terrifying myself so much I couldn’t shut my eyes, though I knew in the end my protagonist would survive.

When I grew up I worked in kids television and wrote mainly action comedies. Nothing in the horror genre… until now. I didn’t set out to write a horror. I had this germ of an idea and just started developing it, spinning yarns that were creepy but nothing close to pants-wetting. I thought of the story more as a mystery, maybe a thriller, but horror… could I write that? It had been so long since I’d even tried. But the idea I was developing wasn’t clicking as a mystery, so I decided to see if it came together better as a scary movie.

Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.

Ghostface from the SCREAM movie franchise.

Movie? Why that? Why not book? I’m not ruling out that this story may become a book, but I find when it comes to horror, thinking visually helps. After all, fear is what we can’t see (but suspect is there) and what we can see (and wish we couldn’t). 

But there’s a second reason to approach this as a film – it forces me to simplify things. My storylines tend to be complicated, full of big turning points, life-changing character revelations and interwoven subplots. But that doesn’t work when writing horror. I needed to follow the base rule of scary movies:

Keep it simple.

And here are 3 ways I applied that directive to my budding horror tale…

  1. Smaller Character Goals. Because I like proactive characters, I tend to give my heroines plans to do stuff. Big goals! Big dreams! But I found that when the Monster strikes and the bodies start dropping, those goals are quickly forgotten and replaced by one desire, “Don’t die!” This is why most horror movies start with the characters just wanting to have fun, or get settled into a new house, or go on a relaxing holiday. Simple, everyday plans because soon the only goal will be staying alive.

  2. Uncomplicated Plot. In the same way that comedy needs time for jokes, horror needs time for screams. If you bog down the script with multiple subplots or twists or revelations, there will be too much story to tell and not enough time left over for scaring the crap out of your audience.

  3. One-Step Character Change. Quest or a coming-of-age stories lead the heroine along various steps that slowly change her into the person she needs to become. But in horror the heroine changes for one reason – she gathered the strength to fight off the monster. Like Sydney in SCREAM: (minor spoiler alert) she wasn’t over her mom’s death and hadn’t come to terms with her mom’s reputation as the town tramp, but there are no heartfelt scenes where she talks to a friend/therapist/teacher, goes through the stages of grief and slowly comes to accept what happened. Nope, she just kills the monster. Now she’s strong and ready to move on.

Though “Keep It Simple” is the base rule of writing horror, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Far from it. I need to learn everything I can about this excellent but often abused genre, starting with devouring some scary writing craft books.

Next up from Heather… I’m reading “Writing the Horror Movie” and learning how to use the four basic tools of horror. What are they? I’ll tell you next Monday.

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