Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Delicate Art of Raising the Stakes

When writing a conflict for your main character, there's a fine line between giving them a problem that's too easy to solve and giving them a plot that even Sherlock Holmes would find impossible to unravel.

Make a problem too easy, and your audience will lose interest. Make a problem too difficult, and they'll lose patience.

How do you find that happy medium? I try to look at the conflict on a scale, from 1 to 10. A "1" problem would be something that your main character could solve on three hours of sleep. A "10" problem would be something so confounding and difficult that your character's best hope is that some other, more talented character shows up and saves the day.

The second of those possibilities has potential, but only if you're writing a main character whose primary role is that of an observer. If your main character is the sort of person who shouts tips from the sidelines as other characters fight, or who steps nimbly out of the way as danger passes, then having a "10" problem can serve well for comedic relief. (I.e. - isn't your main character glad he's not involved in that mess!)

On the other hand, if you want your character to do more than point and laugh at the main conflict, you may have to bring the conflict down to a level that they can handle.

For example, in my current writing project (the modern-day Amazons story I mentioned yesterday), the main character eventually faces several dozen opponents, all at once, with very few weapons or allies. However, she starts out the story just facing one opponent. He's kind of worn out and down on his luck. Even so, my main character wouldn't have survived without some unexpected help.

Starting your main character out with an easy problem and then ramping up to a 10 (or 11) at the end shows character growth, and has the side benefit of keeping the audience intrigued with your story.

In today's writing prompt, play with the problem I present. Make it the most boring version you can think of, and then write several more versions, working your way up to a 10! Have fun, and keep writing!

Prompt: He studied the terrain carefully, pondering his next step. Stretching, he reached and touched his toes, then bounced back up to limber up his arms. He knew he had to cross the _____. If he failed, the consequences would be...

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