Fiction has conflict at its heart. Without conflict, there can be no fiction. Conflict is what drives us as humans, and hence, is what we’re most interested in. Fiction without conflict is more like summary.
Most writers begin with a single conflict in mind for their story. However, if they don’t progress the story beyond that conflict, the story falls flat. “Upping the stakes,” as it were, prevents that. It intensifies the central conflict, or adds an additional layer of conflict. How, you ask? Think of it like this:
Imagine we have a character, Jack, who loves steaks (see what I did there?). He goes to the fridge to grab a rib eye for dinner, and notices all his steaks are gone. See here, we have conflict. The character wants something, but something stands between him and his desire.
Now, let’s up the stakes. He calls his wife, Sarah. “Where are all our steaks?” he asks.
“I took them,” she says. “For Frank. I’m leaving you for him.”
Boom. Stakes have been upped. Now we from the simple to the complex. We can further complicate things, if you like. Let’s say, for example, Jack finds evidence to indicate that Frank is planning on offering Sarah as a human sacrifice to some strange demon at midnight that evening. Now there’s a ticking clock.
Though the idea sounds pretty far-fetched, you see the idea of progression. Try reading the back cover of your favorite books, and you’ll see what I mean. The progression of conflict is usually clear there.
Think of this classic example from one of my father’s earlier works, A Ship Possessed:
The USS Triggerfish–an American World War II submarine–has come home over fifty years after she was presumed lost in the Atlantic. Now her dark gray hulk lies embedded in the sand of a San Diego beach, her conning tower barely above the breaking surf. The submarine is in the wrong ocean, her crew is missing . . . And her half-century absence is a mystery that’s about to deepen. For the Triggerfish has returned, but she has not returned alone. Something is inside her — something unexpected and terrible. To J. D. Stanton, retired Navy captain and historian, falls the task of solving the mystery surrounding a ship possessed. What he is about to encounter will challenge his training, his wits, and his faith. Complicating his mission is a ruthless madman bent on obtaining a secret artifact stolen from the highest levels of the Nazi regime. And poised in the middle is a young woman, a lieutenant who must contend with invisible forces she never knew existed. A Ship Possessed is a story of faith, courage, and determination in the face of unexpected and unknown evil.
Notice the blue text. This is the dramatic set up, the original conflict. The red portions are the parts of the plot that layer in additional conflicts and complicate the original problem.
Or this one from his recently released novella, Plot Line:
Ray Beeman is a man in pursuit of a dream. With two published novels under his belt he knew he was on his way. Then his publisher went bankrupt. His future went dark. No money, no income, no profession. Could he start over? Yes, with the help of a stranger who offers him a dream job that allows him to continue writing. All he has to do is make up “PR” plot lines for a government agency. Not hard for a man with an active imagination. Dream jobs, Ray learns, often come with nightmares. Forced to see what no man should; forced to go where no person was meant to step; drawn across a threshold between worlds, Ray pays for his lucrative job with his sanity. Terrified as he is, he fears one fact more: His actions have put his family in peril.
Or this from my novel The Bargain due out in 2013:
Ten articles in eight days—a tall order for any journalist, even for Polk Award winner Connor Reedly. But with a dying wife and an empty bank account, the promised payment of $250,000 is hard to turn down. More so, his enigmatic employer, Mason Becker, has insinuated Connor’s acceptance of the job will result in a supernatural healing of his beloved wife.
The people of Hailey, California—the subjects of Connor’s charged articles—are a secretive group, not willing to open up to strangers. When shots are fired and Connor is running for his life, he demands Mason answer his questions: Why are the articles so important—is anyone going to publish them? Where is the money coming from? How can he be so confident that the completion of the articles will heal his wife?
Nothing in Connor’s vast journalistic adventures—not Katrina, not September 11th, not even his first-hand experience in the genocide in Darfur—could prepare him for the answers Mason gives. Now, it seems, the life of everyone in Hailey—including his wife’s—is in his hands.
Until next week, good writing.