Writing good fiction is a lot like making a sword. You can read about it, watch someone do it, and handle a thousand beautiful, perfectly made blades – but until you smelt the iron, forge the sword and shape and sharpen the blade yourself, you can’t know how to do it.
Fiction takes practice, and working within a single scene is among the best places to hone your skills.
Like many writers and aspiring authors working on a novel, you no doubt have several great scenes, and a few that could be great, but need a lot of work. For whatever reason these scenes don’t deliver, and therefore stand out as lacking when compared to those scenes that do.
If you can’t quite put your finger on where to start dissecting the problem, examining your scene’s Motivation, Conflict and Stakes is an excellent place to begin.
“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
– Kurt Vonnegut –
Vonnegut is spot on: Characters need to want something to make following them through a story interesting. That burning need, addiction, desire, compulsion, or even obsession is where many great journeys begin – and often what leads to their inevitable end. Motivation, the human psychology at the root of wanting something, informs how our characters act, why they make particular decisions, and what they are willing to endure, or risk. Give me a motivated character, and let’s see how they react when we repeatedly throw conflict their way.
Motivation, applied to conflict, still lacks an important ingredient. Conflict.
Conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. This is where your character’s motivation meets an impediment – whether it be a killer mountain or a soul-crushing philosophy. Spending time on the conflict in your story, and in your scenes, can make for more compelling fiction because it creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome. If you have a scene missing conflict, consider reevaluating its purpose or demoting it to summary.
Coach Doug Kurtz of WriteLife Coaching has called the focus on this area of a scene “The crucible of conflict” because typically, if done well, the conflict is forcing your character to change in some difficult or fundamental way. This transformative process has great weight, or gravity, for readers in that it draws their emotional attention to that point in the story. As such, it’s crucial to be clear about your conflict, as opacity can lead to tepid tension and a bored reader.
Stakes communicate what happens if your motivated character doesn’t achieve his or her goal – if they don’t overcome the precise nature of the conflict.
And raising the stakes in your scene will make your story more compelling.
Imagine if you will a scene*:
A little girl stands in a kitchen staring up at the top of a refrigerator. On top of the refrigerator is a jar of the most perfect chocolate chip cookies ever made. Her mother is in the shower upstairs and she has only a few minutes to find her way up there to remove a cookie, get back down the the floor and consume the evidence. She has no ladder or step stool to assist her, and is not able to climb onto the counter.
The conflict is the impediment of a high-cookie jar, the motivation is the perfect cookie, and the stakes? Well, the stakes are simple: if she doesn’t reach the jar in time, she doesn’t get a cookie. And if she doesn’t do it fast enough, her mother may catch her in the act.
Now imagine a different version:
It’s the same girl, looking up at the top of the same refrigerator, but now, instead of needing to reach the top of the fridge to get to a jar of cookies, she needs to get into the cupboard behind the cookies to find medicine her mother needs. Her mother is not in the shower, but collapsed, unresponsive in the other room.
How much stronger is her motivation to reach that medicine, to overcome the conflict of the location of the medicine? How much higher the stakes if she doesn’t reach it in time? Can you imagine the tension of that moment?
It’s easy to see how much work you can do within your existing scene by playing with these three elements. Each of them is a dial, which can be turned up or down to change a scene’s composition, tension and tone.
Give these dials a spin in your own story, and let me know how it went in the comments below, or over in our Slack community Writer Hangout.
*This scenario was offered to me six years ago by the aforementioned writing coach, Doug Kurtz. I use it to this day. Thanks, Doug.