Conflict that Lifts the Bar

by Gail Gaymer Martin

Problems, crises and conflicts need solutions, but the conflict needs to be strong. It can’t be running out of wine at a party or disagreeing on what movie to see. You all know that arguments and disagreements aren’t worthy of being considered a conflict in fiction.

A conflict needs to involve a vital situation or issue needed for the main character to reach his goal. He needs enough money to pay the taxes and buy back the family ranch. He must find the killer to prove the accused is not the criminal. The more desperate the need the more exciting the solution is to readers. So what can you do to raise the stakes in your novel?

Near Home
Stakes are raised when the conflict or threat is close to home. Someone was murdered on the next street. The neighbor’s child was seriously injured by a hit and run driver. The situation could have happened on your street. The child could have been your own. Still the situation creates a problem and desire to resolve the character’s fear. He wants slower speed limits on the highway. He wants a neighbor watch or better police patrols. These types of issues can happen in novels as they do in real life, but they cannot be the major conflict in the story until the problem is on the character’s doorstep. Then it becomes more personal.

Raising the Stakes
Take a scenario such as this: A coworker has a seriously ill child whose life can only be saved with medication not approved by the FDA, yet successfully used in Europe. This situation would sadden a family man, but if the situation happened to his brother’s son, it’s his nephew who will die without the medication. The grief and concern deepens the closer the issue. Now it becomes personal. The situation involves his brother and nephew. He is more than sad. He fills with anger and writes to his congressman and the FDA. He writes an article to the local newspaper asking citizens to start a petition to force the government to act on the approval of this medication that is affect in other countries.

Deeply Personal
But let’s raise the stakes even more. It’s not a nephew and his brother dealing with this situation, but the plight is his own son who is dying from a disease that could be healed by this medication. In this case, resolving the conflict is vital to his need to save his son. The situation is desperate, and the courses of action grows to unknown heights. The father would do what he did for his nephew, but he would do more. He might decide to travel to Europe and bring the medication into the U.S. illegally. This adds deeper conflict and brings it to crisis level. It could mean imprisonment for him, but it’s a father saving his son, and he will do anything. The stake is deeply personal and it becomes deeply personal for readers who stand behind the father and his desire to save his child.

The stakes can also be raised by facing a community crisis. Everyone recalls in history when radiation was close to homes and families become ill. When water became polluted from chemicals emptied into it by local factories. These are real life concerns that all people have. Today we hear of pieces of land dropping off into mud slides and taking more and more land from people’s property and endangering their homes. These problems also raise the stakes when the character’s home and family are involved. While a community crisis affecting many, authors can bring the desperation home by involving the main character or a family member into the political fray of corruption and greed as they try to save their communities.

As you work with community issues, again, bring it home. Involve the main character and his family. Ask what will happen if this problem isn’t resolved. What political or industrial reaction could add to the main character’s danger? When big business is threatened, it can afford to fight to protect their business even when they know they are at fault. In fiction, such interference by the main character could put his life in jeopardy. Think deep and broad.

Authors writing speculative fiction understand the battles that war in the netherworld, aliens and beings that can destroy the world as we know it, such fiction as: War of the Worlds, Marvel’s The Avenger, Men In Black, Independence Day, and Transformers to name only a few. The author begins in an ordinary world and then strange things happen. Deeper into the story, the main characters’ lives are threatened by the oncoming attack. The world will change forever. Desperation and cunning is the keyword. These stories are action-packed, but within them, a bit of reality must remain. The story goes from saving the family to saving the world. It is a broad sweep of excitement, ingenuity, wisdom and courage. The stake raises when the main character finds his and his family’s lives are in jeopardy. Remember the more the character has to lose means the more his goal at risk. Readers will read with escalated pulses as the stakes become higher and higher.

Lifting the bar to conflict, whether near home, personal, deeply personal, community or world, means the closer the character is to danger and the deeper he is involved in risk and conflict, the higher the excitement grows for readers. Leave them breathless and wanting more.


gailmartinMulti-award-winning novelist Gail Gaymer Martin writes Christian fiction for Love Inspired and has written for Barbour Publishing, where she was honored by Heartsong readers as their Favorite Author of 2008. Gail has fifty-two contracted novels with nearly four million books in print. She is the author of Writers Digest’s Writing the Christian Romance. Gail is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers, a keynote speaker at churches, libraries and civic organizations and presents workshops at conference across the US. She was named one of the four best novelists in the Detroit area by CBS local news. She lives with her husband in a northwest Detroit suburb. Visit her website at Rescued by the Firefighter released in April from Love Inspired, and Barbour will be releasing An Old-Fashioned Christmas Collection in September. She also has an independent romance mystery, Treasures of her Heart, that released in June.



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