Tension sprung a leak? Characters ground to a painful halt? Plot crumpling under pressure?
If it feels like your story’s battery sputtered and died, never fear! You have a terrific toolbox right at your fingertips: three critical components no author should ever leave home without.
Find out how to get your story’s motor revving again after the break!
I figured this out by accident. I was co-writing a screenplay, and as we were breaking the story, we kept running aground because our characters didn’t have any reason to move forward.
The breakthrough for me came when I realized that Conflict, Clock, and Stakes are three separate propulsive factors in plot. In our case, we only had a Clock and Stakes and falsely believed that meant our story our had conflict (it didn’t).
Realize that the mechanisms for resolving conflict are not the same as the conflict. A fistfight is not a conflict. Why they’re punching the beefy **** out of each other? That’s conflict. – Chuck Wendig
Story is conflict. If you don’t have conflict, you probably don’t have a story. If your character moves from scene to scene with only minor opposition, then you probably don’t have enough conflict. If every scene ends in a “victory” for the protagonist, then you probably don’t have strong conflict.
Again: action is not conflict. Confusing the two is why so many novels and screenplays cold open with a REALLY REALLY INTENSE SCENE OF ACTION that we couldn’t care less about. Action is only interesting when we are invested in the conflict and understand the stakes. Don’t start your story with action. Start your story with conflict, which you create by painting a world composed of opposing intentions.
Flashback to 10th grade English class. Remember there are 3 basic types of conflict:
Man v. Man
Man v. Self
Man v. Nature
In The Day After Tomorrow, a second ice age transforms New York City into an apocalyptic tundra. The obvious conflict here is Man v. Nature – people run, screaming, from tidal waves and mega twisters, and the protagonists narrowly overcome natural disaster after natural disaster.
But the story also has elements of Man v. Man – when Jake Gyllenhaal’s climatologist dad (Dennis Quaid) warns him to stay put instead of trying to outrun the storms, Jake struggles to convince the other survivors to heed the warning.
Finally, it’s also an example of Man v. Self – When Dennis tells Jake “Stay put, and I’ll find you.” Jake has to decide if he’s going to hold onto his faith in his dad or succumb to doubt, and the real victory at the end of the movie is not victory over the weather, but reunion between father and son.
Even if you know that you have one kind of conflict in your story, see if you can compound it with the other two types. Your story will be better for it!
Good conflict is…
– Specific (opposing motives or values should be concrete)
– Dramatic (opposing motives or values should be in stark opposition)
– Escalating (it intensifies over time)
I was recently listening to an episode of Writing Excuses where one of the hosts defined stakes as “the reason your character can’t just walk away.” What a great definition.
Stakes are what make the audience want the hero to succeed, which means this device is a vitally important component of your story.
In your first act, ask yourself what would happen if the hero walked away from the call to action.
If the answer is “nothing”, consider looking at your premise again, and see if you can adjust your setup to use what Blake Synder calls stasis = death. Stasis = death means there is a consequence not only for failing, but for remaining stagnant. If your characters feel unmotivated, try taking away something really important to them and watch them spring into action!
Keep in mind that you can sometimes have positive stakes (something to be gained) but you should always have negative stakes (something that will be lost). Sports stories are a great example of a genre that frequently have positive stakes – such as winning the blue ribbon in the horse race – but notice that the really good ones also have something negative at stake – we need the prize money to keep the bank from foreclosing on the family farm.
At the midpoint of your story, ask yourself again: What would happen if the character walked away now?
If it’s not worse than what would have happened in the first act, then it’s likely you have not raised the stakes enough in the second act.
Finally, stakes can create conflict: in Changing Lanes, when Ben Affleck rear-ends Samuel L. Jackson during morning rush hour, it prevents Sam from getting to his custody hearing on time. Meanwhile, a mix-up during the fender bender leaves Sam holding an important legal document that could destroy Ben’s career. Because both men stand to lose everything that matters to them, they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get back at the other. This is an excellent setup for an instantly combustible story.
Good stakes are…
– Specific (we understand exactly what the character will lose)
– Personal (It’s easier for an audience to care about saving Lois Lane than the faceless Metropolis)
– Costly (Could the loss be bigger? Make it bigger!)
Your story’s clock is the reason why the story is happening right now. The function of the clock is to control the story’s pacing. If your characters are taking the scenic route through Act II, or the subplots and side quests are starting to run amok, then you might need to wind up the story’s clock a bit tighter.
The way you get the clock ticking in the story is to set a specific deadline for the characters. In action movies, the clock is usually obvious (in fact it’s often a literal ticking bomb), but this works in lighthearted genres too.
In wedding comedies the deadline is, you guessed it – the wedding. Even though nobody’s life is at stake, the hostility of the deadline comes from the risk of failure: Will the bride overcome her fear of commitment before it’s time to walk down the aisle? Can the in-laws overcome their differences without calling off the wedding entirely? Will the best man find the missing groom in time?
The clock also helps us understand why the story is happening now. This is a common error so say it with me: There should be a reason you started your story on the exact minute of the exact day it starts.
In 2014 I was a top 10 finalist in a screenplay competition where I got extensive development notes as part of the revision process. In the first few pages of the story, my crooked narcotics detective is informed that internal affairs is reopening the investigation into the murder of her partner – by this time, a cold case. But why does IA care about the case now? Well, obviously, because it was convenient timing for my story. But that’s not a good enough reason, and the coverage I received rightfully called me on it. Don’t be lazy and rely on chance encounters and convenient timing. The audience will recognize your characters are puppets when you do. Everything should happen for a reason.
Look at your catalyst or inciting incident. This should introduce some concept of clock. How does the catalyst change the protagonist’s world and create new deadlines?
A good deadline is…
– Specific (we know exactly what we’re counting down to)
– Hostile (what we’re counting down to is the loss of something)
– Measurable (we can count along at home)
If you’re noticing that these three literary tools have a lot of overlap – it’s because they do! I’ve begun to believe that stories usually work best when they have some form of all three devices. Thinking about the form and function of each one has put new fuel in my creative tank and I hope it does for you, too. Your stories are better when they’re bigger and badder, so don’t be afraid to dial your conflict, clock, and stakes up to 100, especially in a first draft. Now go forth and write hard!