Friday, December 12, 2008

Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes

Conflict is what drives the story of your play forward. This is the tension created between the main character and the obstacles that stand in the way of the character achieving his or her goal(s). Conflict starts with what the character wants. This can be something as simple as a character wanting to earn enough money to get a present for his or her mother. But remember, a playwright wants to get the audience to care about the main character and really root for him or her and that can be done by “raising the stakes,” or to put it another way, challenging the character’s desire to get what he or she wants.

Let’s use the example of the character who wants to earn money for a present. We’ll call her Penny. Keeping in mind the outline from a few posts ago, we need to identify Penny’s WANT and EMERGENCY. We know that she wants to earn money to get a present for her mother; I will leave it to you to decide why she needs to begin that journey (the Emergency). The next step is to figure out what she will do to earn the money. To do that, consider what are some things that people do to get what they want. These are the ACTIONS. Some examples might be:


You might be able to add more ideas to this list, or to change some of these suggestions to be more specific. “Ask” could become “borrow.”

Do you see how each action gets more serious? Not everyone will be comfortable to try each of these things, so the idea is not to choose one of these actions for the character, but to have them try each kind until they reach something that the character is not comfortable doing and needs to make a choice. For example, Penny might try asking a friend, or relative for the money, but is unable to earn enough to the present that she wants. So, she gets a job, but finds that she won’t earn the money quick enough. Then perhaps a friend mentions to Penny that she could steal the money, but Penny knows that stealing is wrong and is not comfortable doing that. Now she needs to make a decision. Does she steal the money so her mother has a present? Does she try something else? Does she get a different present? Not get a present at all?

Presenting your character with these different challenges raises their stakes in the story and creates greater tension. The result may be a play that draws the audience deeper into the story and gets them more invested in the outcome. And it is the outcome, or what the character decides to do and how they experience the consequence, which delivers your theme or message to the audience. But that’s for next week. For now, raise the stakes for your character – push them to the limit and see how they respond!

Happy writing!

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